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America's longest-ever war gets an end date

President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 27, 2014, to speak about the future of US troops in Afghanistan. The president will seek to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan after the war formally ends later this year and then will withdraw most of those forces by the end of 2016.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) -
President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 27, 2014, to speak about the future of US troops in Afghanistan. The president will seek to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan after the war formally ends later this year and then will withdraw most of those forces by the end of 2016.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - The longest war in American history has finally been given an end date, 15 years and two months after terrorists trained in the desert of southern Afghanistan hijacked airplanes to attack New York and Washington.

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that combat operations in Afghanistan would end this year, followed by a drastic decrease in the U.S. presence and a complete pullout by the end of 2016.

That would conclude a military mission that has left thousands dead, including 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors from Canada, which finally ended its own mission earlier this year.

Obama declared it was time to turn the page on an era where American foreign policy was focused on combat. The announcement served as a prelude to a major speech Wednesday where the president plans to look forward, laying out his vision for American foreign policy in a post-war-on-terror age.

There was no pomp or ceremony in Tuesday's announcement, let alone the slightest hint that this war would end with any kind of VE Day-style ticker-tape ceremony on the streets of New York City. There was only a solemn statement on the White House lawn.

"I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," Obama said.

"Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies, but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility...

"We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."

The mission achieved positive results in a country long scarred by battle, including chasing away al-Qaida and helping to build Afghan institutions, Obama said. He also promised that the U.S. would continue to support peace initiatives there.

But as for boots on the ground, Obama said there will only be 9,800 soldiers left at the end of this year, mainly for training and counter-terrorism; half that number will remain by the end of 2015; and none will be left by the end of 2016.

As for what lies ahead for Afghanistan, not even the most confident analyst will venture any bold predictions. But in that other former pillar of America's war on terror, in Iraq, bloodshed increased after the U.S. left.

At least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of security forces were killed in Iraq in 2013 — the worst death toll in years in Iraq, albeit still much better than the worst moments in 2006-07, according to the United Nations.

In Afghanistan, military deaths are on the decline, as they were in Iraq before the pullout. But more than 3,000 coalition soldiers have died, more than two-thirds of them American. And the body count remains higher than it was in the first few years after 9-11.

A former Canadian defence minister remembers that hopeful period.

David Pratt now says he would have been shocked if someone had told him, back when he was defence minister in 2003-04, that the war would end like this — with a solemn presidential announcement in 2014.

"We were anticipating, frankly, more focus on aid projects and governance. The view was that you were still going to have acts of terror occur, and acts against NATO troops and civilians — but these would be fairly limited," Pratt said in an interview.

"Nobody, I don't think, anticipated what happened in 2007 in (Kandahar) — those kind of pitched battles. I certainly didn't anticipate that. It was more the view that the Taliban and al-Qaida had either been defeated or chased out of the country, and we could focus on some of these aid projects."

Pratt lost his House of Commons seat before Canada decided to enter the Taliban hotbed of Kandahar.

When asked whether it was all worth it, he offers a mixed answer.

On the one hand, school enrolment in Afghanistan is up eight-fold since 2001, according to the World Bank. Infant mortality is down. The GDP is listed as having more than tripled. The mission also helped solidify NATO, and Canada's bond to it, Pratt noted.

On the other hand, nearly 3,000 civilians were killed and almost 5,700 more were injured last year alone, according to the UN. The country is nowhere close to what people hoped for in 2004, he said.

As for who won: "I'm not even sure that the concept of winning wars exists anymore."

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