President Obama on Thursday told U.S. troops who have 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, N.Y., 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.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that Obama's timetable for the drawdown was faster than he recommended, but it won't jeopardize the military mission in Afghanistan.
"It was more aggressive and it has more risk than I recommended," he said. "That said in totality, it's within the ability to sustain the mission, focus on the objectives and execute."
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."
Obama's remarks came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill defending the Obama administration's outreach to the Taliban as unpleasant but necessary to bring stability and security to Afghanistan.
Clinton told a Senate panel that Obama heard many competing views before coming to his decision.
"Out now; out by the end of the year; out by the beginning of the year and then there were those that said let's wait until the end of next year," she said. "And what the president decided was to get through the ... next fighting season, in effect, which we think should be sufficient."
On the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sharply disagreed.
"I'm very concerned that the president's decision poses an unnecessary risk to the progress we've made thus far to our mission and to our men and women in uniform," he said.
At Fort Drum, Obama said that despite the progress 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 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.
NPR's Tamara Keith and David Welna contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press