WASHINGTON, June 23 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama said Thursday the decision to begin a troop drawdown this year does not mean the United States is abandoning Afghanistan.
"Keep in mind that we're talking about 10,000 troops by the end of this year, an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer -- and we'll still have 68,000 troops there, in addition to the coalition partner troops," Obama told Voice of America. "So there is still going to be a substantial presence. But what it does signal is that Afghans are slowly taking more and more responsibility."
The president said "there are Afghans out there every day who are fighting the fight, Afghans who are dying on behalf of their country, and their freedom, and their dignity" and he said the United States should be "a good partner with that process, but also want to send a signal to the Afghan people: this is your country ultimately and you are going to have responsibilities."
Obama announced Wednesday the United States will withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year, and said he saw great progress in the war and in the fight against al-Qaida, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs last month.
The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 "surge" of forces will leave next summer, after the fiercest fighting ends, Obama said Wednesday in a 13-minute televised address from the White House East Room.
The remaining troops will leave "at a steady pace" until all U.S. and allied combat forces hand over security to the Afghan authorities in 2014.
The Afghan military plans to have 260,000 troops that year.
This "responsible end" -- removing troops faster than U.S. military commanders requested but more slowly than many of his political allies would like -- will let the United States refocus its investment in creating a domestic recovery, the president said. "We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means," he said. "We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy."
Obama called on Americans to "recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war," asserting that with a common purpose, "no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach."
"America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home," he said.
The Afghanistan war will cost an estimated $118 billion this year and $113 billion next year, a March report by the Congressional Research Service said. The overall cost since the 2001 U.S. invasion will likely be $444 billion, the report said.
The war so far has also cost 1,522 U.S. lives, including 684 since the surge began.
GOP White House hopefuls criticized Obama's plan, with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty calling it "deeply concerning."
Obama "said we need to end the war, quote unquote, responsibly," Pawlenty said on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor." "When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow [top commander in Afghanistan] Gen. [David] Petraeus' advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we draw down."
Petraeus, who Obama named to head the CIA, recommended limiting withdrawals to 5,000 troops this year and another 5,000 during the winter, administration officials said.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said: "Now it is time we move to a focused counterterror effort, which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight. We need a safe but rapid withdrawal which encourages Afghans to assume responsibility."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said: "We shouldn't adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics. America's brave men and women in uniform have fought to achieve significant progress in Afghanistan, some having paid the ultimate price. I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead."
The United States has been militarily involved in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001, when it led an invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaida. The group had been given safe haven in the country by the Taliban, which seized control in 1996 after years of civil war.
Obama met Thursday with soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. Speaking to a few hundred soldiers who recently returned from Afghanistan deployments, the president told the soldiers "the American people understand the sacrifices you're making" but "our job is not finished" and there is "still some fighting to be done" before the fighting is transferred fully to Afghan forces.