In a move that will turn over a larger-scale military problem to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, President Obama said Wednesday that he will leave about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of this year, more than he had planned.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “The Taliban remains a threat. They’ve gained ground in some cases.”
In announcing the “additional adjustment to our posture,” Mr. Obama said Afghan security forces are “still not as strong as they need to be.” He said he made the decision after consultations with Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and other military chiefs.
Mr. Obama said the decision, which will reduce the U.S. force from the current 9,800 troops, won’t alter the narrow missions of training and advising Afghan security forces and waging counterterrorism operations.
Last month, the Pentagon announced changes to rules that restricted airstrikes against Taliban targets, an indication that Mr. Obama’s planned troop reductions might not be implemented.
For a president who promised in 2011, as he geared up for re-election, to remove all U.S. troops by 2014, the action was another retrenchment on a political promise when confronted with military realities on the ground. The Taliban insurgency has gained fresh momentum in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces, including a suicide attack in June on a group of police cadets that killed at least 33 people.
Mr. Obama revised his total-withdrawal plan in 2015, saying he would cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of this year. Now, he is increasing that number by about 3,000 troops.
The move ensures that either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump, the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, will need to address America’s 15-year-old, $100 billion-plus military involvement in Afghanistan as one of their first national security priorities. Mr. Obama said his decision “best positions my successor to make future decisions about our presence in Afghanistan.”
“In January, the next U.S. president will assume the most solemn responsibility of the commander-in-chief, security of the United States and the safety of the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “The decision I’m making today ensures that my successor has a solid foundation for continued progress in Afghanistan as well as the flexibility to address the threat of terrorism as it evolves.”
Republicans tried to link Mrs. Clinton to what they called a failed strategy. The Republican National Committee said Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state in Mr. Obama’s first term, “supported ‘every facet’ of President Obama’s initial ‘aggressive’ withdrawal plan, despite skepticism from top military officials.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, had been urging Mr. Obama not to cut troop levels further. He said the decision Wednesday “is certainly preferable to cutting those forces by nearly half.”
“That said, 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,” Mr. McCain said.
Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Obama made a big mistake when he pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, allowing the Islamic State terrorist group to gain strength. They said he should not repeat that mistake in Afghanistan.
Mr. Graham said the announcement “is more a political decision by President Obama than a military one.”
“This troop reduction, while it will seem small to many, will have a negative impact on the security situation in Afghanistan,” Mr. Graham said. “Unfortunately, all President Obama did today was make the job of our remaining troops serving in Afghanistan, and the next president, much harder and riskier.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president’s approach in Afghanistan is preferable to the military strategy of President George W. Bush, who ordered a U.S. invasion of the country after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda terrorists.
“The previous administration tried the approach where the United States would try to impose a military solution on a country like Afghanistan,” Mr. Earnest said. “That’s not a long- term solution. So, the president’s approach is one that ensures a positive long-term outlook for Afghanistan, but there’s also no denying that the next president will also have to make some substantial weighty decisions with regard to our ongoing relationship with Afghanistan.”
Mr. Obama addressed the contradiction that he had pledged as a candidate to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, saying he has withdrawn 90 percent of them. He also ordered a surge of 30,000 troops to the country in December 2009, increasing the total force to about 100,000.
“Even as we work for peace, we have to deal with the realities of the world as it is,” Mr. Obama said. “This is where al Qaeda is trying to regroup. This is where ISIL continues to try to expand its presence. If these terrorists succeed in regaining areas and camps where they can train and plot, they will attempt more attacks against us. I will not allow that to happen.”
The president made the announcement a day before he departs for a NATO summit in Poland, where he will meet with the president of Afghanistan. A senior administration official said Mr. Obama took the step “to demonstrate the continued U.S. leadership of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.”
“We believe that this announcement will be very welcomed by our NATO allies and by the Afghan government in that it provides a clarity about our intentions and our enduring support for Afghanistan,” said the official, who refused to be identified.
White House aides also said NATO will announce an agreement this weekend to provide funding for Afghan security forces through 2020 as a confidence-builder for the central government in Kabul.
Mr. Obama called on Taliban leaders to return to negotiations to end the conflict.
“The only way to end this conflict and to achieve a full drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Carter said U.S. military leaders believe the decision on troop levels “will enhance our ability to continue progress on our two central missions in Afghanistan: strengthening Afghan forces so they can secure their nation and prevent its use as a safe haven for terrorists.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, didn’t indicate whether he supported the decision but said, “It’s important that we continue to support our Afghan partners to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said cutting the troop levels at all “places increased risk on the mission.”
“The Taliban and Haqqani network controls more territory today than at any point since 2001,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Al Qaeda’s presence has grown and Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan have proven resilient. Now is not the time to talk about troop reductions or to continue to tie the hands of our military personnel by barring our commanders from going after the Taliban and Haqqani network the same way they are authorized to go after the Islamic State.”