Obama Slows Afghan Withdrawal

The administration is willing to nearly double the number of U.S. forces who will remain in Afghanistan this year, but promises they'll be out when the president leaves office.

President Obama Meets With Afghan President Ghani In Oval Office
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to Afghan President Ghani during a restricted bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House March 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. This marks the first meeting between the two presidents at the White House following the 2014 presidential election, which produced the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has spent months publicly lobbying the White House to slow its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. His efforts have paid off.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday, March 24, that he would slow the rate at which U.S. troops leave Afghanistan over the next two years, but will stick with his plan of having almost all of them out of the country by 2017.

Under the new timeline, 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of this year. Obama’s previous plan had called for drawing down to 5,500 troops by the end of 2015. The new plan allows the United States to keep control of two key bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad, where the Taliban threat is close by. With more troops staying in the war zone, U.S. casualties could rise still higher. Since the start of the war, America’s longest conflict, the military has suffered 2,215 deaths and 20,000 wounded.

The decision reflects a clear win for Ghani, a pro-Western leader and former World Bank official, who took office in September after an election marred by accusations of widespread corruption. Since taking office, Ghani has worked hard to show that he will be a totally different leader from his controversial predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who sometimes demanded that all foreign troops leave the country, accused the United States of using needlessly brutal tactics, and once threatened to personally join the Taliban.

Obama’s decision also reflects fears that the Afghan security forces still need more training, a concern exacerbated by what has happened in Iraq, where U.S.-trained security forces collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s advances last summer. Close to 3,000 U.S. troops have returned to Iraq to rebuild elements of the Iraqi military and train a force of tribal militias charged with gradually retaking territory lost to the Islamic State.

“President Obama has been convinced to keep 10,000 troops through one more fighting season to give the new Afghan government time to get its act together politically, breathe life into a peace process, and further strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces so they can stand more on their own for the 2016 fighting season,” said aid Andrew Wilder, vice president for South and Central Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, where Ghani is scheduled to speak Wednesday evening.

But though he has changed the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Obama has not budged on the deadline. He is determined to end the war in Afghanistan before he leaves office, meaning that all but a few hundred troops stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are still scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2016. Obama said Tuesday that the pace of withdrawal in 2016 is still to be determined.

At its peak in 2011, the United States had 101,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 158,000 the United States deployed to Iraq in 2008.

On Monday, speaking at the Pentagon, Ghani said the original timelines had been helpful by providing the Afghan government with clarity on U.S. plans. But since taking office, Ghani has made it known that he wants U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan longer, telling CBS’s 60 Minutes in January that “deadlines should not be dogmas.”

Obama’s decision to slow the withdrawal is not enough for some defense hawks on Capitol Hill.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Monday that by sticking to its original plan for withdrawing all but a few hundred troops by 2017, the White House will be risking the gains made over the last 13 years.

Afghan troops are still going to need help with intelligence, logistics, combat aviation, and special operations forces, the senators said in a statement.

“These are the same capabilities that Iraqi forces were missing when the United States precipitously withdrew at the end of 2011. We must not repeat this mistake,” they said.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic State threat is still considered relatively small.

The United States thinks it “represents more of a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban, but we’re still taking this potential threat, with its dangerous rhetoric and ideology, very, very seriously,” Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Congress in February.

He told the House Armed Services Committee that the options he presented to the White House focused on providing greater flexibility in 2015 and 2016, but did not look at extending the U.S. presence beyond that.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the United States would seek about $4 billion a year to keep the Afghan security forces at a peak strength of 352,000 through fiscal year 2017. They have had trouble reaching that size due to attrition and are not currently that large today.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years, spending an estimated $1 trillion.

On Wednesday, Ghani will deliver remarks to a joint meeting of Congress.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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