President Barack Obama said the U.S. will cut its military presence in Afghanistan to almost zero over the next two years and redirect its efforts to combat the evolving nature of terrorism.
As the U.S. combat role ends this year, the force in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 troops, enough to help train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations, he said. In 2015, that deployment will be cut in half and by the end of 2016, as Obama prepares to leave office, the U.S. will leave only enough troops for security for the American Embassy.
“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said in remarks at the White House. Bringing troops home will let the U.S. “respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.”
The timetable, which reflects recommendations made at the start of the year by the Pentagon, depends on the U.S. and the Afghan government reaching an agreement on the legal status of any American forces still in the country at the end of the year. It also marks the end of the longest war in U.S. history, launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” said Obama, who campaigned for president on a promise to leave Iraq and end the war in Afghanistan. “We have to recognize, Afghanistan will not be a perfect place and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
The U.S. president’s remarks today come a day after he returned from a visit to Bagram Airfield over the Memorial Day weekend, and the day before Obama delivers a foreign policy address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
In tomorrow’s speech, Obama will call for more extensive counterterrorism partnerships around the world and ask Congress to create a dedicated fund to support those operations, according to a person who was briefed by the White House.
The fund, which would require a new spending appropriation from Congress, is intended to provide other countries with training and equipment while also supporting U.S.-led missions, according to the person, who asked for anonymity because the briefing was private. The amount of money being sought wasn’t specified in the briefing, the person said.
The timeline drew mixed reactions from defense analysts and lawmakers, some applauding the still-robust presence of U.S. forces after combat operations end while criticizing him for broadcasting how soon the U.S. will get out of the country.
“The part of the announcement that will be most debated will be the timeline,” said Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary for defense.
Three Republican senators who’ve been critical of the president’s foreign policy, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in a joint statement that Obama was foolish to set a date for the final withdrawal.
“The president appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq,” they said. Promising a withdrawal by the end of 2016 “will embolden our enemies” and “fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead.”
In Iraq, the government forced the U.S. into a total withdrawal by refusing to come to an agreement on security. Since then, the country has experienced continuing sectarian violence and a resurgence of anti-Western extremism.
The White House rejected criticism of announcing a timeline, with an administration official telling reporters in a briefing before Obama spoke that the president believes that the benefits of telling U.S. its NATO and Afghanistan allies how long the U.S. is prepared to stay outweigh any risks of emboldening the Taliban or outside groups. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss administration deliberations.
The 9,800 post-2014 troop level would be the lowest level since July 2003. There are 32,800 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, according to the most current Pentagon figures.
Questions remain about the capability of Afghan forces in battling the Taliban, which has continued to strike targets in the country.
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said broadcasting an end to cooperation with Afghan forces by a date certain is “a mistake,” especially given that the readiness of Afghan forces is still in question.
“Where is the virtue in declaring now that the follow-on mission will only last two years?” he said. “It seems to me that keeping the American people safe should be the fundamental emphasis, not being able to say that we’ve totally departed. So on this point, I am confused and perhaps critical.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, also warned against an “arbitrary number from Washington.”
“I am pleased that today’s decision supports our military’s request for forces, but I look forward to hearing more specifics on how the proposed troop number will adequately cover the defined missions,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
While outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement, the leading candidates to be his successor, to be decided in runoff election, say they will.
Obama cited the election as a sign that Afghanistan is ready to take responsibility for its own security and progress. He said the U.S. is prepared to continue supporting Afghanistan with financial and development assistance, “but our relationship will not be defined by war.”
Flournoy said the 9,800 troops that will remain there next year is a “robust” force and that it should help secure commitments from NATO allies and discourage hedging inside Afghanistan.
“If the election proves a positive, watershed event and things go exceedingly well in Afghanistan, the president’s envisioned timeline could make sense, but my hope is that the actual drawdown will be informed by how conditions on the ground unfold,” she said.
Before the announcement, Obama telephoned U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, key U.S. allies involved in the war, as well as Karzai.
About 5,000 U.S. service personnel will be left in Afghanistan by the end of 2015. Those forces would be consolidated at Bagram Airfield and Kabul. Obama said reaching that goal would depend on conditions on the ground.
By the end of 2016, the U.S. force level will be cut further to security for the American Embassy. That could translate to numbers in the hundreds, based on embassy security presences on other countries.