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Obama: Troops may remain in Afghanistan beyond war

President Barack Obama says a small U.S. military force may remain in Afghanistan next year, but he’s promising to declare an end to the 12-year war there at the end of 2014.

In his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama pivoted briefly to foreign policy, reaffirming that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.

“If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida,” he said.

The president also warned lawmakers in both parties against passing new economic sanctions against Iran while the U.S. and international partners are holding nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic. He renewed his commitment to veto sanctions legislation if it passes, arguing that a new round of penalties would upend the sensitive diplomacy.

Last year, during his 2013 State of the Union speech, President Obama announced that 34,000 more U.S. troops would return home from Afghanistan by the end of that year, and the war itself would be over by the end of 2014. “America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al-Qaida,” he said to applause.

President Obama’s schedule for withdrawing the troops remained unchanged throughout 2013, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has struck a defiant tone of late with the United States, refusing to sign a long-term security agreement outlining the post-2014 American presence in Afghanistan, and releasing dozens of prisoners the United States deems dangerous. Karzai has said he wouldn’t sign the security pact before the Afghan presidential election slated for April 5.

“So the challenge for us is, are we going to wait out President Karzai and sign the agreement with the successor, or do we use Karzai’s intransigence and I think very unpopular stance in Afghanistan, to use that as an excuse, if you like, and go to a zero option, so-called zero option and say no more troops after 2014 in Afghanistan?” said former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on the Jan. 27 PBS NewsHour.

In 2013, President Obama also spoke about the need for continued efforts toward nuclear nonproliferation, particularly in North Korea and Iran. Little has changed with the North Korean regime. But in Iran, new President Hassan Rouhani has signed an interim deal to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent purity and to neutralize its uranium already enriched to 20 percent.

On the Nov. 25 NewsHour, Gregory Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies debated the interim deal. Jones called it “something of a disaster, because it actually does validate Iran’s right to enrich, even though Secretary [of State John] Kerry says it doesn’t.” While Lewis pointed out that “there was no meaningful constraint on Iran’s nuclear weapons program before we had this deal.”

Regarding the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” efforts aimed at emphasizing the economic importance of the region last year were sidetracked by continuing turmoil in the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt, but also by domestic troubles. The president cancelled his planned four-country tour of Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea last fall due to the U.S. government shutdown.

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