The United States says the last of the 33,000 “surge” troops ordered into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama nearly three years ago have withdrawn from the country.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the "surge did accomplish its objectives of reversing the Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increasing the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces."
Panetta added, “We have struck enormous blows against Al-Qaeda's leadership, consistent with our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al-Qaeda and denying it a safe haven."
Calling it a "very important milestone," Panetta said he believes the United States is on track to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan.
The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which peaked at some 101,000 last year, has decreased slowly over the past several months as Afghan forces increasingly took the lead in security duties ahead of the planned withdrawal of NATO-led combat forces in 2014.
The withdrawal of the “surge” troops leaves 68,000 American forces in the country along with some 40,000 from NATO coalition partners.
The return of U.S. forces to pre-surge levels comes as the security transition to Afghan forces is threatened by a spike in “insider attacks.”
At least 51 foreign troops have been killed in such attacks this year in which Afghan security personnel have turned their weapons on their Western mentors.
U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the “insider” attacks a "very serious threat" to the war campaign and has declared that "something has to change."
Panetta has characterized the attacks, however, as the last gasp of a desperate insurgency.