WASHINGTON - In a major policy speech, President Barack Obama touted his efforts to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so as to move the United States off ‘a permanent war footing’, as he reminded that drone strikes too have been restricted.
The President also said “a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with Nato allies” after 2014 if the Afghan government signs a security agreement, adding that the mission would involve training and assisting Afghan forces as well as continuing counterterrorism operations against “remnants of Al-Qaeda.”
He also renewed his threat to veto new sanctions on Iran, while urging Congress to provide the time and space the US needs to continue ongoing nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic.
In his annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, Obama made clear that the end of the war in Afghanistan does not mean an end to the threat of terrorism. “We have to remain vigilant,” he said. But he also vowed to “not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”
Obama did not say how many troops might remain in Afghanistan after this year. “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with Nato allies,” the president told the jampacked house in an address that was dominated by domestic issues. Officials said the president still debating how many US troops to leave in Afghanistan after 2014.
US military commanders have recommended leaving 10,000 American troops post-2014, but Vice President Joe Biden has recommended leaving 2,000 to 3,000.
The president pledged to aggressively pursue terrorist networks – “through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners – America must move off a permanent war footing.”
“That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones – for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”
Negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme will be difficult and may not succeed, the president said.
“These negotiations do not rely on trust,” Obama said. “Any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”
On other challenges, he said, “While we have put Al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks.”
In Syria, he said, “We’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.”
And, he vowed: “With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay — because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”
Agencies add: He said 2014 should be the year to finally close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. He said Congress needed to give him further flexibility.
He also reasserted the pledge he made earlier this month to reform US surveillance activities. Obama vowed to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America’s middle class.
Obama also used his speech to reassure a war-weary American public that the US military was on track to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than a decade of war there. “We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over,” he said.
Obama made a powerful plea to give diplomacy a chance to resolve a decade-old standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. He also warned that “the fact is, that danger remains” and the US had “to remain vigilant” in face of changing global threats. “As commander-in-chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office,” he warned.
“It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program - and rolled parts of that program back - for the very first time in a decade,” Obama said.
Thanks to the six-month accord, the Islamic republic has begun eliminating its stockpiles of enriched uranium, has agreed to daily inspections and is not installing advanced centrifuges, he said.
“With our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he stressed.
But he warned that negotiations for a comprehensive deal, due to start in New York next month, “will be difficult.” Obama said the US was ‘clear-eyed’ and any deal would not be based merely on trust but on verifiable actions. “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” Obama said.
Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama vowed to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America’s middle class. Obama’s orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers, creation of a ‘starter savings account’ to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.