Under pressure at home and abroad, President Obama has decided to leave a large troop presence in Afghanistan past the end of his administration, abandoning his often-stated pledge to end America’s longest war before he leaves office.
Under the new plan, which Obama plans to announce today, the US will keep 9,800 service members in Afghanistan through most of next year. The troop number would be reduced to 5,500 beginning in 2017, assuming that the next president stays on the same course.
The US forces will stick to their current mission in which they do not take combat roles, but pursue terrorist threats and train, advise and assist Afghan security forces, according to senior administration officials familiar with the plans. The officials briefed reporters in advance of the announcement on condition of anonymity.
Despite the absence of a combat mission, the decision to keep a significant force in Afghanistan represents a major setback for Obama. He has long talked of bringing to an end the two wars – in Afghanistan and Iraq – that he inherited. Instead, he now faces the near certainty that when his tenure ends, both countries will still be at war, and the US will continue to play a major role in both conflicts.
The decision comes after months of review and internal debates involving Obama, Pentagon officials, US commanders and Afghan officials. In recent weeks, the White House had been examining options offered by Gen. John Campbell, the top US commander in Afghanistan.
In the end, however, the Taliban played a major role in deciding the issue. Last month, Taliban militants seized the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, the first time they had taken control of a major city since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Although Afghan forces, backed by US airstrikes, drove the militants out of Kunduz this week, the Taliban’s ability to successfully strike a major city convinced administration officials that a wholesale withdrawal of US forces would risk an all-out collapse of Afghan security forces.
Pentagon leaders and members of Congress, led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) have warned that Afghanistan could repeat the experience of Iraq, where the withdrawal of US troops led to instability and opened the way for Islamic State militants to seize control of large parts of the country.
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited NATO headquarters in Brussels and asked allies to continue committing troops to Afghanistan.
“It’s not a question of whether, but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan, and last week, it became clear that our NATO allies feel the same way,” Carter said in a speech Wednesday to the Assn. of the US Army.
“Taliban advances in parts of the country underscore the reality that this is, and remains, a difficult fight,” he said. “We understand that Afghanistan still needs assistance.”
Despite about $5.7 billion in US aid to the Afghan government this fiscal year – including $4.1 billion for the military – Afghan security forces have had problems defending targets in Kabul, the capital, and in Helmand province in the south in addition to their losses in Kunduz.
New threats, too, have arisen as insurgents claiming allegiance to Islamic State have established themselves in some parts of the country.
Afghan security forces have been unable to operate the advanced weaponry obtained through US aid and still largely depend on US air power for cover.
Obama previously had intended to cut the total number of US troops in Afghanistan from 9,800 to about 5,500 by 2016. Under that plan, only a small force of about 1,000 would have been left in place to guard the US Embassy by the time a new president was sworn into office in 2017.
But that plan began to change in March when the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, came to Washington and voiced concern about the tenuous security of his country.
Obama agreed to keep all 9,800 troops in place throughout this year. At the time, however, he said that he still planned to leave only a few hundred in the country after 2016.
Instead, the US now will keep troops in Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar, said the administration officials who described the plan. The administration estimates that the plan will cost $14.6 billion a year.
Obama has not yet decided when troop levels will begin to decline from 9,800. Commanders in the field will make those decisions in consultation with the White House, officials said. Beginning in 2017, however, the force will be drawn down to 5,500, according to the current plan.
Though the non-combat mission continues as currently designed, one senior official said the president has ordered the military to “make sure we’re addressing threats to the homeland.”
“To the extent there’s a terrorism threat,” the official said, “we will address that threat.”