FORT DRUM, N.Y. >> President Barack Obama on Thursday told American troops who’ve fought in Afghanistan that the U.S. has turned a corner after nearly 10 years of war, and it’s time for their comrades still in that country to start coming home.
Speaking to soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York, the president defended drawdown plans designed to have 33,000 troops back home by next summer.
"We’re not doing it precipitously," Obama said. "We’re going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained."
The president’s comments addressed some of the criticism of the drawdown plans he announced Wednesday night in a televised address to the nation. Liberal Democrats and some Republicans said the withdrawal was too slow, while other Republicans contended it was faster than what is required to ensure a level of stability in Afghanistan.
But Obama said the time was right to begin winding down the war on his schedule, thanks to the conditions the soldiers at Fort Drum helped bring about. Fort Drum is home to the 10th Mountain Division light infantry unit that has been one of the most frequently deployed to Afghanistan.
"Because of you we’re now taking the fight to the Taliban instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to us," the president said. "Because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement."
Despite the progress, the president said the job isn’t finished and "There’s still some fighting to be done." The withdrawal of the 33,000 troops Obama surged into Afghanistan in 2009 will leave about 70,000 still there. Obama hopes to mostly complete the transition to Afghan control in 2014.
Obama’s remarks came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tacitly acknowledged the military had wanted more troops to remain for a longer period of time. And she said the keys to finally ending the conflict will be political negotiations with the Taliban leadership and managing a highly contentious relationship with Pakistan.
Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that prospects for successful peace talks with the Taliban are unclear. She said the U.S. was involved in "very preliminary" contacts with the Taliban, which she said has only recently shown signs that it may be ready to talk about a political settlement.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supports the plan, although he had recommended a less aggressive drawdown schedule.
Obama’s approach adds risk to the military mission, Mullen said. But he added, "It’s manageable risk."
Obama spoke to about 250 members of the 10th Mountain Division in a dining hall on the base.
Following his brief remarks, Obama stopped to talk one-on-one with the soldiers. He told them to be "at ease" while he took his time working the room, but those orders from the commander in chief did little to spark any chatter among the troops.
The president then headed into private meetings with military families.
Army officials said 10,200 soldiers from Fort Drum are currently in Afghanistan. The memorial page on the post’s website lists the names of more than 120 division soldiers who’ve died in Afghanistan since 2002.