President Barack Obama, predictably, framed his long-expected decision to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as a slight change in plans, a healthy response to a reinvigorated partnership with Afghan leadership, and the latest strategy update to reflect the assessments of U.S. military commanders on the ground. And critics of Obama’s national security strategy, predictably, used the announcement to get in their “I told you so’s,” calling the shift a response to their own warnings that failure to extend the drawdown timeline would turn Afghanistan into “another Iraq.”
“At our peak four years ago, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan,” Obama said Tuesday in a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “In support of today’s narrow mission, we have just under 10,000 troops there. Last year I announced a timeline for drawing down our forces further, and I made it clear that we're determined to preserve the gains our troops have won.”
“My national security team and I've decided that we will maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of this year,” Obama said, citing Ghani’s requests for flexibility and consultations with his top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell. “This flexibility reflects our reinvigorated partnership with Afghanistan, which is aimed at making Afghanistan secure and preventing it from being used to launch terrorist attacks.”
U.S. officials will decide later this year just how U.S. forces in Afghanistan will shrink by the end of 2016 to a group of roughly 1,000 troops to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called the decision “appropriate” but again blamed the security situation in Iraq on Obama’s “early” exit. "Everyone looks forward to the day when Afghans can meet all of their own security needs, but Iraq has shown us the consequences of leaving a fragile ally too early,” he said. “The bottom line is that our own security is at stake."
But others criticized the continued existence of a public timeline for withdrawal. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke out even before the announcement, saying Monday, “While we are encouraged by reports that the Obama Administration may slow the rate of its military drawdown in Afghanistan this year, we are deeply concerned by reports that the Administration is holding to an arbitrary calendar date for its significant draw down plan for next year, rather than one based upon conditions on the ground.”
“Such a course would put at immediate risk all gains achieved over thirteen years of war in Afghanistan,” they said. “The United States precipitously withdrew” from Iraq. “We must not repeat this mistake.”
Such concerns are hardly new. When Obama first announced the timeline in May 2014, it was immediately criticized for what opponents claimed was an arbitrary rigidity that telegraphed strategy to the enemy. That criticism that has only intensified with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal there, and now, evidence of the group’s growing presence in Afghanistan.
Though Obama administration officials say they constantly reassess the Afghanistan strategy, the shift is acquiescence to these critics. When Obama entered the White House, Afghanistan was “the good war,” at least relative to Iraq. Still, he made it clear his legacy would be to end the large-scale ground wars of his predecessor, shifting U.S. national security strategy to high-precision counterterrorism. Announcing the withdrawal in 2014, he said, it was “time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
On Tuesday, Obama insisted the timeline for withdrawal, “remains the end of 2016.” “So, that hasn't changed,” he said. “Our transition out of a combat role has not changed.”
The United States’ longest war formally ended on Dec. 28, 2014, but it is far from over. While Obama maintains that the final consolidation of U.S. forces to a small embassy presence will still occur by the end of his administration in 2016, his initial timeline dictated that the current 9,800 troop level be cut in half to roughly 5,600 by the end of this year.
And with the Taliban resurgent in former strongholds in the east and south and violence spiking as the fighting season begins, the Obama administration has quietly extended the combat role of U.S. forces, particularly in counterterrorism and special operations, though their mission in Afghanistan is officially primarily to train, advise and assist the 330,000 strong Afghan security forces and police.
As part of agreements worked out with the Afghan leaders’ visit to Washington this week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter also announced Monday that the Pentagon will be requesting additional funding from Congress to boost Afghan security forces to an end strength of 352,000 through 2017.
Obama and his top military officials, while cautioning against alarmism and apples-to-oranges comparisons to Iraq, have confirmed reports of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan. “We’re concerned about reports of the spread of any terrorist organization, but especially one whose actions are as barbaric and brutal as ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday at Camp David. “And we have seen some reports that it has attempted to try to do some recruiting and perhaps some Taliban rebranding themselves as ISIL. But this is going to take a period of time to really evaluate and determine what the prospects are for it, if there are any.”
Obama acknowledged Tuesday that part of the impetus behind the slowdown is counterterrorism concerns. “We're essentially moving the drawdown pace over to the right for several months, in part, to compensate for the lengthy period it took for government formation, in part, because we want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed,” Obama said. “So, we don't have to go back. So, we don't have to respond in an emergency because counterterrorism -- or because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan.”
In answer to skeptics for whether a sustainable resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is possible, Ghani noted, “The departure of 120,000 international troops is not brought about the security gap or the collapse that was often anticipated.”
He thanked the U.S. for its support and for American service members’ sacrifice, but said Afghanistan must be charged with its own security and its own future. On Wednesday, Ghani is expected to reiterate this message in an address to a joint session of Congress.
“You fulfilled your promise to your people, and we've fulfilled our promise to our people,” Ghani said. “We are pleased that the security transition has been met according to the time line that you set. Today, the combat role of the United States in Afghanistan is over, but the train, advice and assist mission is a vital part of our collective interest and collective security.
“Tragedy brought us together, interest now unite us.”