Susan Walsh/AP

White House: We Are Not Disappointed in Afghanistan Troop Announcement

Press secretary Josh Earnest pushed back on reporters’ suggestions that President Obama must be disheartened by his decision to keep troops in the country.

Dis­ap­poin­ted? No way.

That’s the mes­sage from the White House Thursday re­gard­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s an­nounce­ment that thou­sands of troops will re­main in Afgh­anistan through the end of his pres­id­ency.

The re­vised troop-with­draw­al timeline goes against Obama’s 2008 cam­paign prom­ises that he’d end Amer­ica’s wars abroad. But in a press brief­ing Thursday af­ter­noon, press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est re­peatedly pushed back against sug­ges­tions that the pres­id­ent is dis­heartened by his de­cision to keep U.S. troops in the coun­try through early 2017. After all, the U.S. mil­it­ary has made sub­stan­tial pro­gress there, he said.

“As the next pres­id­ent takes over, that pres­id­ent will be in a much bet­ter po­s­i­tion to con­front the chal­lenges of Afgh­anistan and a much bet­ter po­s­i­tion to ac­com­plish the goal we’d all like to see”: a more stable Afghan gov­ern­ment and na­tion­al se­cur­ity force, Earn­est said.

Flanked at a press con­fer­ence by De­fense Sec­ret­ary Ashton Carter and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, Obama re­vealedThursday morn­ing that 9,800 U.S. troops will re­main in Afgh­anistan “for most of 2016.” As soon as the end of next year, there will be a draw­down to 5,500 troops, who’ll be sta­tioned at bases in Kanda­har and Jalalabad and at Ba­gram Air­field. The an­nounce­ment marks a re­vi­sion in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans to keep only Ka­bul-em­bassy-based troops in the coun­try after 2016.

Obama, too, dis­missed the idea Thursday that he’s dis­ap­poin­ted in the post­poned draw­down: “The nature of the mis­sion has not changed, and the ces­sa­tion of our com­bat role has not changed.” U.S. troops haven’t been en­gaged in com­bat since Decem­ber 2014, and the re­main­ing troops have a “nar­row mis­sion” of train­ing Afghan forces and en­ga­ging in coun­terter­ror­ism against al-Qaida, Obama said.

But just be­cause the Amer­ic­an troops in Afgh­anistan aren’t of­fi­cially in a com­bat role doesn’t mean they’re not ever en­gaged with op­pos­i­tion forces. Though no troops are patrolling the moun­tains and val­leys of the coun­try look­ing for the Taliban, Earn­est said, “when a ter­ror threat is de­tec­ted … they can un­der­take an op­er­a­tion to deal with it.”

Dur­ing his press brief­ing, Earn­est wouldn’t val­id­ate re­port­ers’ sug­ges­tions that the pres­id­ent hadn’t lived up to his cam­paign prom­ises, char­ac­ter­iz­ing Obama’s pre-pres­id­en­tial pledge as one “to make the kinds of de­cisions as com­mand­er in chief that were in the core na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests of the United States.” Earn­est cited Afgh­anistan’s 2014 elec­tion and the mis­sion to take out Osama bin Laden as evid­ence that the U.S. has made gains in Afgh­anistan.

In a press call shortly after the pres­id­ent’s an­nounce­ment, Earn­est said the pres­id­ent has “ad­vanced the vis­ion” he had in 2008, when he pledged to end the war: The U.S. has been able to re­duce its mil­it­ary pres­ence in the coun­try even as the pres­id­ent “ramp[ed] up” Amer­ic­an in­vest­ment in Afghan se­cur­ity forces’ cap­ab­il­it­ies and anti-al-Qaida op­er­a­tions. And by Earn­est’s telling Thursday, Obama in­her­ited a much tough­er at­mo­sphere in Afgh­anistan in 2009 than he’s leav­ing to the next com­mand­er in chief.

The num­ber of troops com­mit­ted to Afgh­anistan stemmed from the “highest re­com­mend­a­tion” from mil­it­ary lead­ers—and it was the same re­com­mend­a­tion Obama re­ceived from 20-odd House Re­pub­lic­ans who signed a let­ter ur­ging him to main­tain troop levels in the coun­try (in­clud­ing Rep. Joe Wilson, Earn­est quipped, “who called the pres­id­ent a li­ar.”)

Earn­est was also asked wheth­er U.S. com­mand­ers in Afgh­anistan knew that the Doc­tors Without Bor­ders fa­cil­ity that was bombed earli­er this month was a hos­pit­al. A re­port from the As­so­ci­ated Press Thursday af­ter­noon sug­ges­ted Amer­ic­an spe­cial-op­er­a­tions ana­lysts were well aware of its status. Though Earn­est said he hadn’t yet seen the story—it was pos­ted after the brief­ing star­ted—he said it will be con­sidered by the De­part­ment of De­fense in its on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion.