Obama Finds He Can’t Escape Afghan War He Once Vowed to End

Obama to Leave 8,400 Troops in Afghanistan
  • U.S. to keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan at end of 2016
  • Taliban momentum means security is ‘precarious,’ Obama says

President Barack Obama, who once promised to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan within 16 months of taking office, acknowledged on Wednesday that his successor will instead have to resolve America’s longest armed conflict.

Obama announced that he would again slow the U.S. withdrawal from the country, where Afghan government forces are struggling to take and keep territory from the Taliban. About 8,400 U.S. military personnel will remain in the country at the end of the year to help with what Obama called a “precarious” security situation.

QuickTake Leaving Afghanistan

“We’re guided by the facts -- the situation on the ground -- to determine what’s working and what needs to be changed,” Obama said Wednesday. The U.S. troops would continue to focus on training Afghan forces and on counterterrorism missions, he said.

The move, which comes a day before Obama heads to Warsaw for a meeting with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders, means his successor -- likely either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump -- will also have to wrestle with the Afghan war, now in its 15th year. Administration officials who refused to be identified told reporters in a briefing arranged by the White House that a resolution will require the Taliban and Afghan government to negotiate a truce, an outcome they acknowledged is complicated by the Taliban’s reluctance to engage in talks.

Taliban Threat

“Obama has basically realized that there’s not much more he can do to resolve the Afghan issue,” Firat Unlu, an Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said by phone.

The Taliban remain a threat to the government in Afghanistan and the country’s security forces are not as strong as they need to be, Obama said in remarks at the White House. He said his decision would give his successor a “solid foundation” to ensure stability in the region.

“I’ve made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again," Obama said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the U.S. move in a statement released by the presidential palace in Kabul that praised the American military as “a reliable partner, in fighting terrorism.” 

Earlier Timetable

The U.S. had previously planned to draw down troop levels in Afghanistan from 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of the Obama administration. That pace already represented a retreat from initial plans to reduce the footprint of American soldiers to just 1,000 based out of the Kabul embassy by 2017.

But the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has gained new momentum, including a suicide attack late last month on a convoy of police cadets that left at least 33 people dead.

Obama’s decision is “a start, but simply providing a new and higher number of total troops does not indicate that 8,400 will be any more adequate than 5,500,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The move also overlooks other challenges to Afghan stability, including a political crisis and a faltering economy, he said.

“It does not address the level of corruption and power broker activity that does so much to discredit the government, or the failures in the justice system, rising levels of poverty and employment, and deepening sectarian and ethnic tension,” Cordesman said in an e-mail. 

Military Recommendation

The president said the change was recommended by General John Nicholson, his new commander in Afghanistan. Nicholson has been reviewing the U.S. posture in the country, and his predecessors had also requested a larger contingent of troops. Last month, Obama gave U.S. forces broader latitude to assist Afghan forces, including through greater use of air power.

“The Afghan military hasn’t really stepped up to the plate to the extent necessary,” Unlu said. He called the situation “a difficult period for Western governments.”

The move reflects U.S. commanders’ assessment that Afghan forces are suffering heavy losses and unable to stem insurgent gains without continued advice and some combat support, said Ken Katzman, a Congressional Research Service analyst who follows Middle East and Afghanistan security issues. It also signals the U.S. military view that extremist groups -- including al-Qaeda and Islamic State -- have grown in strength in Afghanistan over the past year, he said.

‘Strategic Rationale’

The move comes two days after Republican senators visiting the country warned that the mission there risked failure if troop levels were further reduced.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the decision to slow troop withdrawals, though he questioned whether the number of U.S. forces should be reduced at all.

“When the President himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as ‘precarious,’ it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 U.S. troops by the end of the year,” McCain, who was among the Republican lawmakers who had just visited Afghanistan, said in a statement Wednesday.

The announcement also allows other NATO allies to calibrate their troop levels. The alliance is expected to approve an extension of its mission and funding for Afghan security forces during the meeting later this week in Poland.

With his announcement, the president is leaving it to his successor to work with the Afghan government to come up with a real plan for shoring up the country’s security and economy, Unlu said: "What is necessary is for the Afghan forces to step up, basically, and make more progress.”

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