WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama announced a plan on Tuesday to keep a contingency force of 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and pull all American troops out of the country by the end of 2016.
“This year, we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” Obama said, in remarks from the Rose Garden in the White House. Obama said that the US remains committed to assisting Afghanistan on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda remnants. He stressed that the US will only sustain a military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs a Bilateral Security Agreement.
“The bottom line is that it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade when so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said. “In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these two wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.”
Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign a security agreement before he leaves office this summer, much to the consternation of Obama. The president bluntly warned Karzai earlier this year that the “longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”
Both of the leading candidates to replace Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, however have voiced their support of signing the BSA if they are elected, Obama noted. “I am hopeful we can get this done,” Obama said.
According to Obama’s plan, US troop levels would be reduced by about half, consolidating US troops in Kabul and on Bagram Air Base, by 2015.
“By the end of 2016, the US will draw down to a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as we have done in Iraq,” he said.
Republican lawmakers Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona called Obama’s plan “short-sighted.”
“The president came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited,” the senators said in a joint statement. But wars do not end just because politicians say so.”
Obama, who in his primary victory in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, repeatedly reminded voters of what he saw as Washington haste to go to war. On Tuesday, he noted that “Americans have learned it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.” “This is how wars end in the 21st century,” Obama said. “We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.” Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, said the size of the post-2014 force makes sense, but the rationale for removing all of them is lacking.
With 9,800 troops, the US military can support about six bases along with their Afghan counterparts, O’Hanlon said. That force could also maintain air bases, including drones, in key parts of the country. Further reductions in 2015 could be justified as Afghan security forces improve. But a full withdrawal after 2016 would be a mistake, O’Hanlon said. He pointed to the experience in Germany, Britain, Korea and Japan, where US forces remain long after wars have ended but the need to support strong allies remains.
“Where is the virtue in declaring now that the follow-on mission will only last two years?” O’Hanlon said. “It seems to me that keeping the American people safe should be the fundamental emphasis, not being able to say that we’ve totally departed.”The former commander of all forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen John Allen, had recommended more than 13,000 US troops remain there after this year. And former defence secretary Leon Panetta urged between 8,000 and 12,000.
Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at the RAND Corp., advocated the same in an article he co-authored late last year.
With about 10,000 US troops, commanders in Afghanistan will be able to sustain a special operations unit to help Afghan forces, collect and analyze intelligence on insurgents and terrorists and call in airstrikes when needed, Jones said.
Further reductions should be based on the diminishing threat from insurgents in Afghanistan, he said. Withdrawing all US forces by 2016, Jones said, seems aimed at satisfying a domestic audience weary of war.
“In the end, nobody may be happy,” Jones said.