Musadeq Sadeq/AP
A US Army chaplain leads a Christmas service for deployed soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan. This year has the fewest number of troops deployed overseas in at least the last five years.

Home for the holidays: Fewer US troops are absent this year

Christmas 2012 marks the smallest deployment of combat troops abroad in at least five years, as the war in Iraq ends and US forces deployed to Afghanistan have been drawing down.

When President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama issued a special holiday greeting over the weekend to US troops fighting overseas, they were addressing the smallest deployment of combat troops in at least five years.

“This week let’s give thanks for our veterans and their families,” the president said. “And let’s say a prayer for all our troops – especially those in Afghanistan – who are spending this holiday overseas, risking their lives to defend the freedoms we hold dear.” Mr. Obama added that the number of troops in harm’s way is coming down, because “the war in Iraq is over [and] the transition in Afghanistan is under way.”

The number of troops in Afghanistan is at its lowest level since the “surge” of about 35,000 troops, ordered by Obama in December 2009, took the total over 100,000. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph gave an incorrect year for the surge of troops into Afghanistan.]

With Obama, who will take the oath of office for a second term on Jan. 21, pledging to bring America’s “decade of war” to an end, the number of combat troops deployed overseas is likely to continue shrinking.

Still, such holiday messages to the troops are likely to remain on the president’s agenda for years to come. Still to be decided are the pace of the drawdown of the remaining 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan and the size of any residual US force in Afghanistan after most NATO and US personnel leave at the end of 2014.

That’s not to mention other crises, from Syria to Iran, that might spark some form of US military intervention.

Then, as Mrs. Obama emphasized in the video greeting, there are the 2.4 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and their families, who will continue to require services beyond holiday acknowledgments from the president.

“Our military families sacrifice so much on our behalf, and Barack and I believe that we should serve them as well as they serve this country,” she said, drawing attention to the “Joining Forces” effort that she and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, have spearheaded to engage Americans in supporting military families.

In the meantime, thousands of combat troops – some on their third or fourth deployments – are spending another Christmas and New Year's away from their families, some decorating mini Christmas trees on their bases or wearing red-and-white Santa caps to kindle the holiday spirit.

While Obama focused on troops in his greeting, military personnel are not the only ones on hazardous foreign duty this holiday season. On Monday, an Afghan policewoman shot and killed a US civilian police adviser in the latest in an uptick of so-called “insider” attacks.

In 2012, more than 60 foreign military and civilian personnel, most of them Americans, have been killed by Afghan security forces. A major thrust of the US work in Afghanistan is to prepare Afghans to assume responsibility for their country’s security needs by 2014.

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