The Cable

Obama, Dropping Pledge, to Keep Thousands of Troops in Afghanistan After 2016

Some 5,500 U.S. forces will remain in country to train the Afghan army and fight the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME
In this photograph taken on August 13, 2015, US army and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME In this photograph taken on August 13, 2015, US army and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of American troops will remain in Afghanistan after President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017, senior administration officials confirmed Thursday morning, a sharp reversal of the president’s long-held plan to have almost all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of his term.

Speaking from the White House flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, President Obama tied the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan to the broader counterterror fight, saying that by keeping U.S. outposts in the country, Washington ensures Afghanistan will remain “a key piece of the network of counterterrorism partnerships that we need, from South Asia to Africa, to deal more broadly with terrorist threats quickly and prevent attacks against our homeland.”

The decision prolongs what is already the nation’s longest war, and comes at a critical time for the Kabul government, with Afghan forces suffering record casualties in months of hard fighting with an invigorated Taliban, whose members appear to be rallying behind new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Mansour took over after the death of the group’s iconic founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

It also comes at a difficult moment for the White House, which has been trying to square the president’s campaign promise to end the war with the reality of the Taliban resurgence and fears that a full U.S. withdrawal could allow the country to fall into chaos, as has happened in Iraq. Obama is also struggling with the fallout of a botched U.S. airstrike in Kunduz earlier this month. In the incident, an American AC-130 gunship mistakenly strafed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 22 people. Obama personally apologized and promised a full U.S. probe, but the aid group, and other NGOs, have called for an independent investigation instead.

Under the previous plan, most of the 9,800 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan were scheduled to leave by the end of 2016, save for an embassy security force in Kabul. But the 9,800 advisors and counterterrorism forces will now remain in place through most of 2016 before drawing down to about 5,500 troops by early 2017, when a new administration moves into the White House.

The 5,500 troops will continue the mission of training and advising Afghan forces, while a special operations forces contingent will focus on the counterterrorism fight against al Qaeda. A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity on Thursday, said that after 2016, U.S. troops will remain “at a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.”

The official added that the announcement “in no way changes the fact that our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, and we will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting our Afghan partners.”

The extent to which the fight remains unfinished was highlighted on Oct. 7, when a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Kandahar hit two al Qaeda training camps, one of which covered nearly 30 square miles, according to U.S. military officials.

“This is one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan,” Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “We struck a major al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland.”

The head of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, was in Washington last week for a series of high-level meetings and to appear before several congressional committees. He made the case there that the fight was a long way from being over and expressed alarm over the emergence of the Islamic State in some parts of the country.

“If we think that this is going to be cleared up in a couple of years, we’re fooling ourselves,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “We have to position ourselves to ensure that we can do everything we can to mitigate [the power of the Islamist militants in the country].”

A recent United Nations report also relayed the grim news that the Taliban have spread through more areas of the country than at any point since 2001. Just last month, the militants seized the city of Kunduz before being pushed out by a major government offensive backed up by U.S. air power.

Aware of the parallels that critics of his policies draw between the chaos that followed the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Obama ticked off the ways in which the political realities of Kabul in 2015 differ from those in Baghdad in 2011. “In the Afghan government, we have a serious partner who wants our help,” he said. “And the majority of the Afghan people share our goals. We have a bilateral security agreement to guide our cooperation. And every single day, Afghan forces are out there fighting and dying to protect their country. They’re not looking for us to do it for them.”

In a call with reporters after the president’s remarks, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was pressed on if the president felt disappointment over handing off a war he promised to end to the next president, who will assume office with 5,500 troops still entangled in what will by then be a 16 year-old war.

“The scale of the challenges the next president will face are much smaller,” than what Obama faced when he entered the White House in 2009, Earnest said. And when it comes to next steps in Afghanistan in 2017 and beyond, “that question for the next commander-in-chief will be easier to answer.”

There are approximately 4,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan currently, advising Afghan forces throughout the country. Defense Secretary Ash Carter returned late last week from a NATO meeting in Brussels, where the commitment to the effort in Afghanistan was high on the agenda, though no announcements have yet been made about European plans. Speaking with reporters on Thursday at the Pentagon, Carter said he has already spoken to “key allies” in an effort to secure their participation in the post-2016 effort, but neither he or Defense Department officials would elaborate.

Additional reporting by FP chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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