May 26 (Bloomberg) -- After a surprise trip to Afghanistan yesterday to thank U.S. troops, President Barack Obama is nearing a decision on how and when to let them come home.
Obama may offer details on the withdrawal of most military operations as early as this week, including how many troops -- if any -- would be kept in Afghanistan after this year to help train local forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.
The long-anticipated decision may come as part of a speech he plans to give May 28 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York -- the same forum he used in 2009 to announce a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.
Obama told reporters during his visit to Bagram Airfield yesterday he will announce troop numbers “fairly shortly.”
“After more than a decade of war, we’re at a pivotal moment,” Obama told about 3,200 troops in a brief thank-you speech.
“By the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over,” he said. “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”
While the Pentagon has plans to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country after this year, Obama has said no U.S. forces can remain unless Afghan President Hamid Karzai or his successor sign a bilateral security agreement to govern military operations. Karzai has refused to sign the pact, though the candidates running to succeed him have pledged to do so.
Obama seeks to avoid an outcome similar to that in Iraq, where Iranian influence, secular and ethnic tensions and Sunni Muslim extremism have grown after he withdrew U.S. troops for lack of a similar accord. Iraq has been plagued with almost-daily bombings by extremists at a pace that has increased since the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011.
About 30,000 troops are serving in Afghanistan today, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2011.
Obama’s frayed relations with Karzai were evident as the Afghan leader turned down an invitation to meet at Bagram. It wasn’t surprising that Karzai couldn’t meet on short notice, said a White House official who asked not to be identified to discuss the invitation.
After leaving Afghanistan, Obama called Karzai from Air Force One and pledged to contact the Afghan leader again before announcing his decision on troop levels, according to an administration official who asked not to be named in order to discuss the private conversation.
The two presidents also used the call, which lasted 15 to 20 minutes, to discuss progress made by Afghan security forces and the first round of the elections, the official said.
As Afghans prepare to hold a run-off election for president June 14, Obama wanted to keep the trip “focused on the troops and not necessarily getting in the middle of Afghan politics at this time,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who briefed reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Bagram.
If no agreement is signed and U.S. counter-terrorism forces leave, al-Qaeda is likely to re-emerge from hiding places in Afghanistan to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland, Marine General Joseph Dunford, who commands all U.S.-led forces there, told Congress in March.
“It’d be not only a physical reconstitution for al-Qaeda as a movement, it’d allow them to become the vanguard of the movement” by claiming a moral victory, Dunford said of a U.S. departure, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dunford and Ambassador James Cunningham briefed Obama on his options during his visit to Bagram. The president also toured the operations center and met with wounded soldiers.
While Obama seeks to reduce the size of the force in Afghanistan as much as possible to let troops come home, he also must guard against leaving a presence too small to protect itself.
The Pentagon was preparing three scenarios for war funding next year depending on how many troops remain, according to an internal Defense Department e-mail obtained by Bloomberg last month.
One estimate assumed 10,000 troops will remain, while a second estimate assumed 5,000. A third estimate assumed no U.S. military presence as of Jan. 1, according to the e-mail.
The war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, was launched following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It has cost the lives of 2,320 U.S. service personnel and left another 19,765 wounded, according to Pentagon figures. Nations who joined the U.S. coalition in Afghanistan have lost hundreds more troops.
The United Nations says that more than 14,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict just since 2009.
The conflict has cost the U.S. more than $720 billion since 2001, according to the National Priorities Project, which studies federal spending.
A vote on Karzai’s replacement was conducted on April 5. A runoff will be held because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.
“Once Afghanistan has sworn in its new president, I’m hopeful we’ll sign a bilateral security agreement that lets us move forward,” Obama told troops. He said the accord would let the U.S. “plan for a limited military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Because after all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win.”
Without foreign troops to continue training and assisting them, Afghan forces may not be able to keep insurgents at bay and prevent a civil war, U.S. and officials from other nations have said.
Taliban guerrillas announced their annual spring offensive on May 12, when seven Afghan policemen were shot dead by militants at a checkpoint in southern Helmand province and three suicide bombers stormed a provincial office building in Jalalabad, killing four.
Upon arrival yesterday, Obama told military and other U.S. officials at a briefing attended by reporters that he saw a poster of the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center buildings in New York destroyed during the Sept. 11 attacks. “It’s a reminder of why we’re here,” he said. “We are now in the process of transition.”
Obama was accompanied by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer and Advisor John Podesta, who has a son serving in Afghanistan and was expected to have a reunion with him.
The president told troops, “Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place. But just look at the progress you’ve made possible. More Afghans have hope for their future and so much of that is because of you.”
This was Obama’s fourth trip to Afghanistan as president. The last was in May 2012 to sign a strategic partnership with the Afghan government as a prelude to the U.S. military’s disengagement from the country.
For security reasons, yesterday’s trip was shrouded in secrecy. The protocol was established under former President George W. Bush for his trips to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. It continued under Obama, as the president departed Washington under cover of darkness with no advance public notice.
On Obama’s last visit, Afghan insurgents put an exclamation point on the security imperative. Within hours of Obama’s departure from Bagram Airfield, they mounted coordinated attacks that killed six civilians in Kabul.
Afghanistan is the poorest country in Asia with a population of about 27 million. The countries that have provided billions of dollars in aid are hesitating over giving more to a country weakened not only by war but by entrenched corruption, ethnic rivalries and meddling neighbors. Fear of the post-NATO future has already slowed economic growth.
A Pentagon report obtained by Bloomberg News in April found that corruption is a major threat to the viability of the Afghan government and that the massive influx of U.S. military spending and aid has contributed to that environment.
The trip came as Obama faces mounting questions about his foreign policy. Republican lawmakers have complained that he hasn’t done enough to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, acted too late to help kidnapped girls in Nigeria and allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to become emboldened enough to annex Crimea and threaten Ukraine.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com Gail DeGeorge, Elizabeth Wasserman