Declaring a “new chapter in American foreign policy,” President Obama announced Tuesday that he will bring home all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, even as he readies a plan to send more military advisers to train rebels in Syria’s brutal civil war.
The president revealed his long-awaited plan for winding down America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan, saying he wants to keep 9,800 U.S. troops there beyond the conclusion of formal combat operations at the end of this year. The troop levels are contingent on Afghan leaders signing a security agreement with the U.S.
“Now we’re finishing the job we started,” the president said in an address in the White House Rose Garden. “Our relationship will not be defined by war.”
Aides said the timing of the president’s announcement had to do partly with politics — Afghan politics. They said Mr. Obama can make the announcement now because both Afghan presidential candidates say they would support a bilateral security agreement to protect any U.S. soldier from Afghan prosecution.
While the president was claiming credit for ending one war, Mr. Obama is expected to endorse a plan Wednesday to beef up U.S. involvement in Syria’s 3-year-old war.
Mr. Obama reportedly will use a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to announce a mission to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the regime of Bashar Assad and al Qaeda-linked groups.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Mr. Obama will say that he intends to increase support to the armed Syrian opposition, including providing them with training to build on a CIA-led program he authorized one year ago.
Mr. Obama declined to answer a reporter’s question at the White House on Tuesday about the plan for Syria’s rebels. The president and top aides have been debating for a year how to put more pressure on the Assad regime without entangling the U.S. in another protracted war in the Middle East.
The president will use his announcement on Afghanistan as a lead-in for his foreign policy speech Wednesday in which he will outline his approach for “a broader set of priorities around the globe.”
“This new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe,” Mr. Obama said.
While most Americans are eager to conclude the war in Afghanistan, which has left more than 2,200 U.S. service members dead and more than 17,000 wounded, some lawmakers criticized Mr. Obama for giving the enemy Taliban and al Qaeda a precise timetable for withdrawal.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire blasted Mr. Obama’s announcement as “a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy.”
“This is a shortsighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly,” they said in a statement. “Wars do not end just because politicians say so. 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. Today’s announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region.”
Some liberal Democrats reacted with disappointment Tuesday, saying the president’s plan for troop withdrawals isn’t speedy enough.
“We are glad the original combat mission in Afghanistan is coming to a close, but keeping a residual force of 9,800 in the country after 2014 is not ending the war,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, and Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “A troop presence in Afghanistan could last indefinitely, which would mean fewer resources for investments in infrastructure, education and sustainable jobs for the middle class here at home.”
If Afghan leaders agree, the president said, the number of American troops would be reduced to about 5,000 by the end of 2015.
However, many U.S. government and counterterrorism officials say Afghanistan will continue to be a problem for the U.S. regardless of any scheduling of a war’s end by the administration.
• Just last week, former senior Pentagon officials and leading counterterrorism analysts told Congress that al Qaeda is operating a “shadow army” inside Afghanistan while the Taliban is on the verge of major resurgence.
A total pullout “would be a major error and jeopardize our security from future al Qaeda attacks from this region,” said Michael A. Sheehan, who served in the administration as assistant secretary of defense until last year.
• Also last week, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a gathering at a Washington think tank that the Afghan government is so corrupt and graft-ridden that it poses a problem “more serious in Afghanistan than the insurgency.”
Among the problems SIGAR has identified are the fall of Kabul’s main bank from theft, the loss of $190 million given to the Ministry of Public Health, the surgeon general of the Afghan National Army steering contracts to his brother’s business and the Afghan government’s own anti-corruption unit choosing not to pursue corruption charges against top government officials.
• The Washington Times reported this spring that confidential U.S. assessments the State Department tried to hide from the public show nearly all Afghan Cabinet ministries are woefully ill-prepared to govern after the U.S. withdraws its troops.
The USAID reports often call gaps in knowledge, capability and safeguards “critical” and describe an infrastructure in danger of collapsing if left to its own accord.
Fewer ‘in harm’s way’
The president flubbed the announcement about declining troop levels on his first attempt, stating that at the start of next year, “We will have approximately 98,000” troops in Afghanistan. Then he paused.
“Let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don’t get this written wrong,” Mr. Obama said. He went on to say there would be 9,800 troops there next year.
Mr. Obama approved the diminishing troop levels after conferring with U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan on Sunday, as the U.S. winds down the war begun in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The U.S. now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan; the troops that remain next year would help to train Afghan forces and advise on counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.
The president emphasized that he was keeping campaign promises to bring U.S. troops home from conflicts overseas.
“When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way,” he said. “By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the troop levels “will help ensure that al Qaeda cannot reconstitute itself in Afghanistan, and it will help us sustain the significant progress we have made in training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces.”
The president stopped short of words such as “victory” in his announcement about the war ending.
“This is how wars end in the 21st century: not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries [and] transitions to elected governments,” he said. “Thanks to the skill and sacrifice of our troops, diplomats and intelligence professionals, we have struck significant blows against al Qaeda’s leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden, and we’ve prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against our homeland.”
By the end of 2016, the U.S. presence would be cut to a normal embassy staffing with a security assistance office in Kabul, administration officials said.
Addressing critics who say the administration shouldn’t announce its military staffing plans to the Taliban and al Qaeda, a senior administration official said declaring the timeline for troop withdrawals was “necessary for planning purposes” by the U.S. and its allies.
“That allows for everybody to have predictability,” the official said. “There’s great utility in having people know how the plan is going to go.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, welcomed the president’s announcement on troop levels beyond this year but said he wants a more detailed explanation about why the administration believes the force levels will be adequate.
“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 as well as provide appropriate force protection for our military and civilian personnel,” Mr. Boehner said.
With Afghans scheduled to elect the next president June 14, the U.S. is looking to sign a security agreement with the candidate who replaces Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who refused to sign a pact. The two leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential race, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have pledged to sign the security agreement as soon as possible if elected.
Without an agreement, administration officials said the U.S. would withdraw all troops by the end of this year, the “zero option.” But an administration official said the positive comments by both Afghan candidates “gave the president the confidence to make this announcement and provide this clarity.”
Most U.S. troops now serving in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by the end of this year in what Mr. Obama has called a “responsible end” to the longest war in U.S. history.