Obama Slows Withdrawal From a War He Pledged to End
With the Taliban on the move, the president opts to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, extending America’s longest war.
President Barack Obama once vowed to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan during his time in office. But last October, he had to back off that promise as security unraveled. On Wednesday, Obama announced he would scale back an even more modest U.S. troop withdrawal planned for the end of the year, so that the Afghan government can better fend off renewed pressure from Taliban insurgents.
The president said 8,400 U.S. forces will remain on the ground by the time he leaves the White House next year. He had previously planned to reduce the U.S. military footprint to 5,500 troops from the current force of 9,800.
Although Afghan security forces had grown stronger with U.S.-led assistance, “the security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious,” Obama said from the White House.
“And I strongly believe that it is in our national security interest — especially after all the blood and treasure we’ve invested in Afghanistan over the years — that we give our Afghan partners the very best opportunity to succeed,” said Obama, flanked by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
The move reflected Obama’s struggle to wind up the 14-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan without risking the potential collapse of the Kabul government and a possible sanctuary for al Qaeda or Islamic State extremists.
Obama, however, said that the the United States was “no longer in a major ground war in Afghanistan.”
Even with the “major ground war” over, U.S. troops continue to die in combat. Over the past 18 months, 38 service members have been killed in Afghanistan. And since U.S. forces set foot in the country in 2001 to topple the Taliban and hunt down al Qaeda militants, more than 2,200 troops have lost their lives and more than 20,000 have been wounded.
Although such a relatively small adjustment to troop levels will likely make little difference on the ground, a recent decision arguably carried much more weight for the U.S. military mission, experts and former officials said. After months of internal debate, Obama in May granted U.S. commanders authority to carry out an expanded air war against Taliban militants and to send more American advisers into combat with Afghan troops.
Obama, due to depart Thursday for a NATO summit, said the announcement on force levels would allow transatlantic allies to align their troop plans and send a message to the Taliban that it would never prevail on the battlefield.
“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,” Obama said.
A former senior Pentagon official who helped craft policy on Afghanistan, David Sedney, told Foreign Policy the decision was a positive step but represented “the barest of the bare minimum necessary to give Afghan and Allied forces a fighting chance in the months to come.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long accused Obama of taking troop decisions based on political calculations, welcomed the move but argued that no U.S. forces whatsoever should be withdrawn given the deteriorating security in Afghanistan.
McCain said in a statement that “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.”
In Washington, the political discussion of the war has placed far too much importance on the number of U.S. troops deployed, according to Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as an adviser to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Adm. Mike Mullen.
The hyper-focus on troop levels is a “misplaced obsession,” she said.
Instead, the most important factor fueling instability in Afghanistan is the country’s dysfunctional government, followed closely by the role of neighboring Pakistan in either harboring, or turning a blind eye, to militant groups, she said.
Officials said U.S. troops will continue to have two missions: training and advising Afghan forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which has a relatively limited presence in eastern Afghanistan.
But the biggest impact of the open-ended U.S. troop presence may be in ensuring funding from Congress for the Afghan army and government, which depends almost entirely on international aid for its survival.
Without American boots on the ground, lawmakers would have little appetite to approve billions of dollars in annual support for the Afghan army and police, said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
“The larger story of the war is a politicized, deeply corrupt Afghan security force that has to be funded long enough from the outside to maintain a stalemate that will allow for an eventual political settlement,” Biddle told FP.
Obama noted that the next president chosen by American voters in November — whether presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump or Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton — will inherit America’s longest war. Yet the 14-year-old conflict has been largely absent from the campaign debate.
If elected, Clinton likely would carry on the Obama administration’s overall approach to Afghanistan, with “perhaps even a less insistent effort to continue to diminish the U.S. presence,” said James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation who served as Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013-2014.
As for how Trump would handle Afghanistan, Dobbins said: “One just hasn’t any idea.”
Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce