By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden American Forces Press Service
Aug. 2, 2010 - After nearly a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, today's military has become one of the greatest generations to serve, President Barack Obama said today.
In a speech at the Disabled American Veterans National conference in Atlanta, Obama lauded veterans for their service and sacrifice. He praised today's military for bringing the Iraq war to a close, as well as embracing the difficult mission ahead in Afghanistan.
"For the past nine years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have borne the burdens of war," Obama said. "They, and their families, have faced the greatest test in the history of our all-volunteer force, serving tour after tour, year after year.
"Through their extraordinary service," the president continued, "they have written their own chapters in the American story, and by any measure, have earned their place among the greatest of generations."
The U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ends Aug. 31, a goal Obama set in February 2009, just after entering office. Violence in Iraq over the past year is at an all-time law since the war began there in 2003.
The United States has withdrawn 90,000 troops from Iraq over the last year and a half. About 70,000 troops are in Iraq today, and by Sept. 1, only 50,000 U.S. troops will remain, transitioning the U.S. mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi forces.
All U.S. forces are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, Obama said.
Through the mission's end date, the president added, U.S. troops will partner with Iraqis in conducting counterterrorism missions and safeguarding civilians. But although the mission may be changing in Iraq, he said, it's still dangerous.
"There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq's progress," he said. "The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq. But make no mistake: our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats. And as we mark the end of America's combat mission in Iraq, a grateful America must pay tribute to all who served there."
As the Iraq war winds down, the war in Afghanistan continues. About 98,000 U.S. troops, including almost all of the 30,000 reinforcements Obama ordered in December, are deployed there.
"Let us never forget it was Afghanistan where al-Qaida plotted and trained to murder 3,000 innocent people on 9/11," Obama said. "If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack. And as president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen."
Challenges are certain in Afghanistan, the president said, but progress has been made since he announced his Afghanistan strategy in December. The new policy and approach in Afghanistan calls for increasing military efforts to reverse Taliban gains, training and developing Afghan security forces and promoting good governance for the country and its people.
"We're focused on goals that are clear and achievable," Obama said.
U.S. forces are aggressively engaging the Taliban and insurgent leaders in the south and along the Pakistan border. Both are areas where militants were once able to roam free. Afghan security forces are also being heavily trained and recruited to operate in these regions.
The civilian effort is pushing the Afghan government to take more responsibility and accountability for its resources and work, Obama said.
"The Afghan government has take concrete steps to foster development, to combat corruption and to put forward a reintegration plan that allows Afghans to lay down their arms," he said.
Obama also praised Pakistan's effort to combat extremism on its side of the border it shares with Afghanistan, saying "major blows have been struck against al-Qaida and its leadership" there.
"In this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for al-Qaida and their extremist allies," he said. "We will disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaida. And we will give our troops the resources and equipment to get the job done and keep our country safe."