Fact Check: Obama claims Afghan combat mission over – despite airstrikes, special ops

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President Obama may be stretching when he assures the American public that combat operations in Afghanistan ended last year.

The president repeated the claim Thursday as he announced 5,500 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2016. "Last December, more than 13 years after our nation was attacked by Al Qaeda on 9/11, America’s combat mission in Afghanistan came to responsible end," Obama said from the White House, flanked by Vice President Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

But this year alone, the U.S. military has carried out more than 328 airstrikes, dropping 629 bombs since January, according to U.S. Air Force Central Command. That amounts to roughly one U.S. airstrike a day since the president announced that combat operations had ended during his State of the Union address in January. So far this year, 25 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan.

During his January address, Obama said U.S. troops have moved to a “support role.” He said, “Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over."

Obama backed off his pledge Thursday to end the war by the end of the year, but maintained that the combat mission is over and said the mission of those staying behind will not change. The remaining U.S. forces will be based at three air bases in Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad, and will only be authorized to train Afghans and hunt Al Qaeda.

"Our forces engage in two missions -- training Afghan forces and supporting counterterror operations against remnants of Al Qaeda," the president said at the White House.

Carter told reporters the same from the Pentagon: "The combat mission has ended and our mission now, on a day-to-day basis, is train, advise and assist and counterterrorism and only to undertake other kinds of operations, either to protect our own forces or in an extremist situation."

The administration argues that despite sustained airstrikes, that mission nevertheless counts as “counterterrorism” and not “combat.” A Fox News reporter asked Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Thursday to clarify Carter's remarks that "combat" is over and the "counterterror" mission remains.

"I think we've talked about it a lot,” Cook said. “It’s clear when we're talking about the counterterror mission – the target is remnants of Al Qaeda."  

Yet these restrictions may also be a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

For example, the actions of U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground in Kunduz show U.S. troops are doing more than "training Afghan forces" or targeting Al Qaeda. A U.S. Special Forces team called in the airstrike on Oct. 3 that hit a Kunduz hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. The hospital had been suspected of having a Taliban presence; the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell told reporters it was the Afghans who requested the airstrike. The U.S. has since called the strike a mistake.

Separately, a press release from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan revealed that beginning Oct. 7, the U.S. military “conducted 63 precision strikes while Afghan forces engaged in several battles on the ground against al-Qaeda networks at two related sites.” A large cache of weapons was seized by 200 U.S. and Afghan ground forces.

The two training sites were located in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the same area where Usama bin Laden set up training camps in the 1990s. According to the statement, one of the camps was 30 square miles, half the size of Washington, D.C.

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