Charting an end to America’s longest war, President Barack Obama has announced plans for keeping nearly 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan after this year but then withdrawing virtually all by the close of 2016 and the conclusion of his presidency.
The drawdown would allow Obama to bring America’s military engagement in Afghanistan to an end while seeking to protect the gains made in a war in which he significantly intensified US involvement.
“We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” Obama declared Tuesday during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.
He credited American forces, which were first deployed by President George W. Bush within a month of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with striking significant blows against al-Qaida’s leadership, eliminating Osama bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for strikes against the US. He said: “Now we’re finishing the job we’ve started.”
The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan’s government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement. While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, US officials say they’re confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalize the deal.
In fact, both candidates who are on the ballot in next month’s runoff — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — welcomed Obama’s announcement Tuesday.
The size and scope of the residual U. force largely mirrors what Pentagon officials had sought, which appeared to give Obama cover with some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. But some of president’s harshest critics on foreign policy — Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — called the decision short-sighted.
US forces had already been on track to stop combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, more than 13 years after the American-led invasion. But Obama wants to keep some troops there to train Afghan security forces, launch counterterrorism missions and protect progress made in a war that has left at least 2,181 Americans dead and thousands more wounded.
There are currently about 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Under Obama’s plan, that number would be reduced to 9,800 by the start of 2015, dispatched throughout Afghanistan.