Obama Announces Halt of U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and MICHAEL D. SHEAR the New York Times.
WASHINGTON — The United States will halt its military withdrawal from Afghanistan and instead keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017, President Obama announced on Thursday, prolonging the American role in a war that has now stretched on for 14 years.
In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Obama said he did not support the idea of “endless war” but was convinced that a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan was vital to that country’s future and to the national security of the United States.
“While America’s combat mission may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people continues,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his top military leaders. “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe havens to attack America again.”
The current American force in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops will remain in place through most of 2016 under the administration’s revised plans, before dropping to about 5,500 at the end of next year or in early 2017, Mr. Obama said. He called it a “modest but meaningful expansion of our presence” in that country.
The president, who has long sought to end America’s two wars before he leaves office, said he was not disappointed by the decision. He said the administration had always understood the potential for adjustments in troop levels even as the miltary sought to withdraw troops from battle.
But the announcement underscores the difficulty Mr. Obama has had in achieving one of the central promises of his presidency in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Obama conceded that despite more than a decade of fighting and training, Afghan forces are not fully up to the task of protecting their country.
The Taliban are now spread through more parts of the country than at any point since 2001, according to the United Nations, and last month they scored their biggest victory of the war, seizing the northern city of Kunduz and holding it for more than two weeks before pulling back on Tuesday.
Mr. Obama noted the dangers, saying, “In key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some areas, there is risk of deterioration.” After 2017, he said, American forces will remain in several bases in the country to “give us the presence and the reach our forces require to achieve our mission.”
He did not specifically mention Iraq, where a full troop withdrawal has been followed by a surge in violence from the Islamic State. But he said the mission in Afghanistan had the benefit of a clear objective, a supportive government and legal agreements that protect American forces — three factors not present in Iraq.
“Every single day, Afghan forces are fighting and dying to protect their country. They are not asking us to do it for them,” Mr. Obama said. “If they were to fail, it would endanger the security of us all.”
Some of the troops will continue to train and advise Afghan forces, while others will carry on the search for Qaeda fighters and militants from the Islamic State and other groups who have found a haven in Afghanistan, he said.
Even before Kunduz fell to the Taliban, the administration had been under growing pressure from the military and others in Washington, including Congress, to abandon plans that would have cut by about half the number of troops in Afghanistan next year, and then drop the American force to about 1,000 troops based only at the embassy in Kabul by the start of 2017.
Now, instead of falling back to the American Embassy — a heavily fortified compound in the center of Kabul — Mr. Obama said that the military would be able to maintain its operations at Bagram Air Field to the north of Kabul, the main American hub in Afghanistan, and at bases outside Kandahar in the country’s south and Jalalabad in the east.
All three bases are crucial for counterterrorism operations and for flying drones that are used by the military and the C.I.A., which had also argued for keeping troops in Afghanistan to help protect its own assets.
There was no set date for the military to decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan to 5,500. The pace of that troop reduction would be determined largely by commanders on the ground, and the timing would also most likely provide flexibility to whoever succeeds Mr. Obama.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had also pressed for Mr. Obama to keep more troops, and many in Washington who have worked closely with the Afghans over the past several years were loath for the United States to pull back just when it had an Afghan leader who has proved to be a willing partner, unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Ghani is acutely aware of his country’s need for help from the United States and its NATO allies. The American military has repeatedly stepped in this year to aid Afghan forces battling the Taliban, launching airstrikes and at times sending Special Operations troops to join the fight, despite Mr. Obama’s declaration that the American war in Afghanistan had ended.
But the recent fighting in Kunduz also exposed the limits of foreign forces now in Afghanistan, which total 17,000, including American and NATO troops. It took only a few hundred Taliban members to chase thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers from Kunduz, and the Afghans struggled to take back the city even with help from American airstrikes and Special Operations forces.
During the fighting, an American AC-130 gunship badly damaged a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 22 patients and staff members — and not a single insurgent.
Mr. Obama apologized for the attack, which may have violated guidelines laid down by the administration for the use of force by the military after the American combat mission ended last year. Under the rules, airstrikes are authorized to kill terrorists, protect American troops and help Afghans who request support in battles — like those in Kunduz, recently taken over by the Taliban — that can change the military landscape.
The idea behind the guidelines was to give troops leeway and to keep Americans out of daily, open-ended combat. But how much latitude Mr. Obama would allow the military moving forward was unclear.
It is not the first time the administration has revised the withdrawal plans. During Mr. Ghani’s visit in March, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2015, instead of cutting the force in half, as had been originally planned. At the time, the White House still maintained that almost all the troops would be pulled out by 2017.
But with the situation in Afghanistan continuing to deteriorate, the military presented the administration with new options this summer. The plan that has been decided on for 2017 and beyond hewed closely to a proposal made by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Obama said that 5,500 troops, along with contributions from NATO allies, which have yet to be agreed upon, would provide enough power to protect the force and continue the advisory and counterterrorism missions.
Finances were also a consideration. Keeping 5,500 troops in Afghanistan would cost about $14.6 billion a year. It would have cost about $10 billion a year to maintain the much smaller force based at the American Embassy.