President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a plan to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan after what has become the longest war in American history.
In a statement from the Rose Garden of the White House, Obama announced his intention to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, when the U.S.’s combat operations will be completed.
The 9,800-troop level would mark a drawdown from the 32,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in the country. It comes as NATO is set to pull the bulk of its 70,000-plus troops from the region as well. In a conference call with reporters, senior Obama administration officials said the remaining U.S. troops in the region would have two missions: Training Afghan security forces, and conducting counterterror missions against the remnants of al Qaeda.
“We will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” Obama said in a Rose Garden statement Tuesday. “The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”
The plan has three drawdown phases:
- Current troop level: 32,000
- End of 2014: 9,800
- End of 2015: Roughly half that number, with troops consolidated in the capital of Kabul and Bagram air field.
- End of 2016: The U.S. will draw down to what administration officials described as a “normal embassy presence” in Kabul.
The reduction to a “normal embassy presence” would come as Obama is set to leave office after the completion of his second term. The proposal is largely in line with what military commanders previously sought. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan asked for 10,000 to 12,000 troops to remain earlier this year.
Coming into office in 2009, Obama expanded America’s role in the conflict in Afghanistan. He put an additional 30,000 troops into the country before beginning a gradual withdrawal in 2011. In a primetime address that year, Obama targeted the end of 2014 as the date when “Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.” Based on the current schedule, thousands of troops will remain in the country at that point.
The continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan is contingent on Afghanistan signing a bilateral security agreement negotiated by members of both governments. Both Afghan presidential candidates have indicated they would sign the agreement within their first days in office.
Administration officials said they were emboldened to make this announcement because of the coming transition from current President Hamid Karzai, who has had a notoriously thorny relationship with the U.S. and has, thus far, declined to sign an agreement.
Administration officials did not mince words when asked about a contingency plan in case Afghanistan’s eventual president-elect balks at signing the agreement, which would provide U.S. forces immunity from Afghan law.
“If there’s not a BSA signed, we will not maintain these forces in Afghanistan after 2014,” one U.S. official said, noting the so-called zero option — in which the U.S. would not keep any troops in Afghanistan past 2014.
Republicans were divided on Obama’s proposal. More hawkish types, including frequent foreign-policy critics and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, said the planned schedule was the type of outlined agreement that would embolden al Qaeda and other enemies.
“The President’s decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy,” Graham, McCain, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said in a joint statement. “This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly.”
They worried the Afghan situation would mirror Iraq, in which the administration failed to strike a broader security agreement with Baghdad and watched the situation descend back into chaos. This year has produced the most violence in Iraq since 2008.
House Speaker John Boehner, however, said he “welcomed” the announcement.
“I am pleased that today’s decision supports our military’s request for forces, but I look forward to hearing more specifics on how the proposed troop number will adequately cover the defined missions as well as provide appropriate force protection for our military and civilian personnel,” Boehner said.
Continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan through 2016 would mean 15 years of involvement in the country. The Afghan war is already the longest in U.S. history.
In his statement on Tuesday, Obama said Afghanistan would not be a “perfect place” after the U.S. leaves.
“And,” he added, “it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.”
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