U.S. President Barack Obama announced he will keep 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan through the end of his administration, effectively halting the war drawdown he had wanted, reflecting the inability of NATO and American military forces to quash decades-old insurgent fighting and force the Taliban to a negotiated peace.
Obama’s announcement comes one day before the start of a NATO summit of its heads of state, where members are expected to make additional commitments of troops and funding for the war. Last month, U.S. and NATO officials said they expect NATO to approve another four year tranche of funding through 2020.
“The narrow missions assigned to our forces will not change,” Obama said, at the White House on Wednesday. “They remain focused on supporting Afghan forces and going after terrorists. But maintaining our forces at this specific level, based on our assessment of the security conditions and the strength of Afghan forces, will allow us to continue to provide tailored support to help Afghan forces continue to improve.”
All of the commitments signal the West’s recognition that they must keep fighting forces in Afghanistan, where Taliban, al Qaeda, and now Islamic State fighters continue their attacks and show little taste for peace talks and settlements the White House desires.
“Regrettably, the Taliban declined to join,” said one senior administration official, speaking anonymously per White House rules, on a conference call with reporters after Obama’s remarks. “We hope the Taliban will come to the table.”
Obama’s decision on leaving 8,400 U.S. troops, instead of the previously planned 5,500, was not about fitting a mission to a preconceived number, said the senior administration official. “It was about designing what the best possible presence was to carry out the missions…and these numbers came from the Department of Defense.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement that he recommended the troop number based on talks with Obama’s top war commander in Kabul, the top regional commander of U.S. Central Command, and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The United States has maintained a steadfast commitment to our Afghan partners, and President Obama's decision today is firmly in keeping with that enduring commitment. The troop level adjustment he announced today, which I recommended after consulting with Gen. [Mick] Nicholson, Gen. [Joseph] Votel, and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph] Dunford, 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.”
Obama described the Afghanistan War as a success that has helped train and field an indigenous force, shrunk the size of the war – which he surged in his first years in office – and nearly wiped out al Qaeda as it was known under Osama bin Laden.
“Compared to the 100,000 troops we once had there, today, fewer than 10,000 remain,” said Obama.
But the war rages on and at the recommendation, one after another, of his Afghanistan War commanders Obama constantly has had to scrap his plans to lower troops levels due to relentless terrorist and insurgent fighting, and limited capabilities of the Afghan security forces Westerners have helped build. U.S. special operations forces continue to fight what has become a limited-visibility war for the American public, similar to U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, which was detailed earlier Wednesday in a report by NPR.
“For the second year now, Afghan forces are fully responsible for their own security,” Obama said, but that is true on paper only. Afghans are wholly reliant upon American and foreign forces for funding, intelligence, resupply, logistics and nearly all air support. Afghan government may be responsible for its own security, but the coalition ensures it, to the best of their abilities. “Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” Obama said.
Meanwhile, the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria overshadows Afghanistan, where more Americans have died fighting, but with far less notice back home.
“Over the past year and a half, 38 Americans, military and civilian, have lost their lives in Afghanistan on behalf of our security, and we honor their sacrifice. We stand with their families in their grief and in their pride and we resolve to carry on the mission for which they gave their last full measure of devotion,” the president said.
Obama’s adjustment was painted as an “I told you so” moment by Republican critics who have opposed his troop reductions over recent years.
"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," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, who spent July 4th weekend in Afghanistan with other senators. McCain has long opposed Obama's troop reductions, which McCain has said he believes the president uses to push for political ends while ignoring realities of Afghanistan's tenuous security state. Obama has rejected the charge, pointing out his willingness to adjust his war plans with his generals, yet stayed true to his stated belief to keep as few Americans in harm’s way as was necessary or effective.
The president spoke directly to Taliban leaders, who have refused attempts at negotiating a peace to end the fighting. “My decision today also sends a message to the Taliban and all those who have opposed Afghanistan's progress. You have now been waging war against the Afghan people for many years. You've been unable to prevail. Afghan security forces continue to grow stronger and the commitment of the international community, including the United States to Afghanistan and its people, will endure.
“I will say it again. 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. That's the only way.”