For the second time in a year, President Obama’s lofty political promise to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq collided with harsh realities on the ground as he announced a plan Thursday to keep at least 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency in January 2017.
With the Taliban and the Islamic State making alarming gains in recent months, Mr. Obama acknowledged that his original plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year would not serve America’s national security interests. His policy reversal will leave to his successor the question of how to conclude the 14-year-old U.S. military mission.
“Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “In key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration. As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
The president said he’ll maintain the current force of 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, then draw down to 5,500 in 2017. He said the noncombat role of U.S. troops will not change, with their mission to train Afghan forces and hunt down al Qaeda militants.
Several high-ranking Republicans in Congress said Mr. Obama is correct to reverse his plans for a full withdrawal, but urged him to keep all current U.S. troops in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation and give his successor more flexibility in 2017.
“At a time when the security situation in key parts of Afghanistan is deteriorating and [the Islamic State] is seeking to make in-roads there, it makes no military sense to withdraw U.S. forces,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican. “Once again, President Obama is putting our mission in Afghanistan, as well as our men and women serving there, at greater risk, and he is doing so for the sake of a troop reduction that has no political benefit, but could have significant military implications.”
Mr. Obama’s decision thrusts the 14-year-old war into the 2016 presidential race and leaves to his successor the problem of how to stabilize the country where Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. GOP presidential candidates former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted the president for having played with arbitrary political deadlines.
“While I am glad President Obama has dropped his plan to abandon the region entirely, if he is truly committed to fighting terrorism and securing a stable Afghanistan, he shouldn’t shortchange what our military commanders have said they need to complete the mission,” Mr. Bush said in a statement.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest retorted, “With all due respect to Governor Bush, that’s not what General [John F.] Campbell says.” Army Gen. Campbell, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, advised Mr. Obama to keep troops there beyond the 2016 deadline for withdrawal; Mr. Earnest said the president’s decision was “consistent with” Gen. Campbell’s recommendation.
Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican, called Mr. Obama’s decision one “that will require our men and women in uniform to accept an incredibly high risk, with little support, simply because he’s the president who promised to end wars.”
“As president, I will follow the advice of my commanders and require a conditions-based withdrawal — not an artificial time line,” he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, was noticeably cool in her reaction, saying only that the president makes such military decisions “with the utmost caution and solemnity.”
The decision was another sobering reversal for a president who came into office endearing himself to liberal voters in 2009 by pledging to end both wars begun in the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. Mr. Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 but later had to change course to deal with the rising threat from Islamic State militants; last year, three days after the midterm elections, Mr. Obama doubled the number of U.S. military advisers in Baghdad to more than 3,000.
Keeping 5,500 troops at four bases — Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Bagram — will cost about $14.6 billion per year, up from the estimated cost of $10 billion to keep a force at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, administration officials said.
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission at the end of 2014, and Afghan troops have taken the lead combat role since then with help from U.S. and more than 6,000 NATO troops.
Mr. Obama spoke about his decision Wednesday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Mr. Ghani has been more supportive of the U.S. presence than previous Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Obama told a reporter Thursday that his decision on Afghanistan was “not disappointing” to him personally. But his announcement struck a note of political concession.
“I know that many of you have grown weary of this conflict,” Mr. Obama told Americans. “As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests. Yet given what’s at stake in Afghanistan … I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
The president also called on the Taliban to engage in a political settlement with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, saying it’s the “only way to achieve a real drawdown” of U.S. troops from the country.
Mr. Obama had originally planned to pull out all but a small, embassy-based U.S. military presence by the end of next year, a timeline coinciding with the final weeks of his presidency. But military chiefs have argued for months that the Afghans need more help from the U.S. to beat back a resurgent Taliban, as well as an influx of Islamic State militants, to hold onto gains made over the last 14 years of American bloodshed and more than $100 billion in aid. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, including at least 16 this year, after combat operations ended.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama’s decision was proof that the president’s “arbitrary political deadlines are self-defeating.”
“Maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan is not a plan for success,” Mr. Boehner said. “The president’s half-measures and failed leadership have emboldened our enemies and allowed for [the Islamic State’s] rise.”
White House aides tried to beat back the criticism that Mr. Obama was breaking a campaign pledge. Mr. Earnest said Mr. Obama “overriding” a promise in 2008 was to keep America safe, and that he has achieved much of that goal in Afghanistan by promoting a Democratic government, killing bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and “decimating” the core of al Qaeda leadership.
“After implementing that strategy over the last seven years, the American people are safer now than when he took office in 2009,” Mr. Earnest said. “That’s tangible progress, that is the president’s top responsibility, that was his top promise and that was a promise made and a promise kept.”
Michael O’Hanlon, director of Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said Mr. Obama is taking “the right approach.”
“With this decision, he will hand off to his successor military forces and tools in Afghanistan that will continue to be critically needed into 2017 and beyond,” he said. “While the U.S. can choose to schedule an end to its role in the Afghan conflict, it can’t schedule an end to the threats posed by the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Islamic State or other extremist elements operating in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.”