While still insisting virtually all U.S. forces will be out of Afghanistan by 2017, President Obama on Tuesday slowed his schedule for withdrawal and said nearly 10,000 troops will remain in the country through the end of the year.
The announcement comes after a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who visited Washington this week and asked for “flexibility” in the U.S. drawdown plan. Mr. Ghani said it’s important for American troops to continue training Afghan Security Forces and for the two sides to work together in ensuring the country does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists and their planners.
But Mr. Obama’s move, by the president’s own admission, extends the U.S. role in Afghanistan and necessarily keeps American soldiers in grave danger for longer than anticipated. At the same time, some analysts say the administration continues to err by sticking to a rigid timeline and essentially telling America’s enemies when almost all U.S. forces will be out of the country.
For Mr. Obama — who in each of his election campaigns classified the Afghan war as a just cause while painting the invasion of Iraq as a terrible mistake — the timeline adjustment seems to underscore his desire to leave Afghanistan a stable democracy and a centerpiece of his foreign-policy legacy.
“I am the first to say that as long as our men and women in uniform are serving in Afghanistan, there are risks involved. It’s a dangerous place,” the president said during a White House press conference alongside Mr. Ghani. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back, so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan. We’re on the path to do that and it was my assessment as commander in chief that made sense for us to provide a few extra months” of current troop levels.
There are about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. By the end of the year, that number was supposed to shrink to about 5,500.
While the drawdown won’t begin this year, Mr. Obama said that all U.S. forces will be out of Afghanistan by 2017, with the exception of about 1,000 troops who will remain to provide security at and around the American embassy in Kabul.
The change in U.S. strategy highlights what looks to be a renewed sense of cooperation between Washington and Kabul after years of frosty relations with Mr. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
While Mr. Karzai at times was eager to push U.S. troops out of his country, Mr. Ghani welcomed the new American timetable and said it’s critical that Afghan forces receive the proper training and logistical support.
He also thanked U.S. taxpayers for their financial investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and honored the more than 2,200 Americans who lost their lives there and the thousands more who were injured.
“Afghans for millennia have guarded our homeland and have a reputation for serving. The last years were an exception where we needed help,” Mr. Ghani said. “We are grateful help was provided but we are pleased the security transition has been met according to the timeline you set. Today the combat role of the United States in Afghanistan is over. But the training, advise and assist mission is a total part of our collective interest and collective endeavors.”
But specialists say Mr. Ghani’s fledgling government could benefit from a less stringent timetable.
While the Afghan president pledged Tuesday that his country will never again be used as a home base for terrorist operations, Afghan security forces still are engaged in regular battle with Taliban militias.
The Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and provided safe haven to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Ghani is pursuing peace talks, but the Taliban may be less likely to give up the fight if its leaders know the U.S. essentially will be gone from the country in two years, said Anthony Cordesman, chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Defense and State departments.
“It is still too rigid,” he said of Mr. Obama’s revamped timetable. “If the Taliban knows the U.S. still plans to cut its advisory presence to an absolute minimum in 2017 and then leave … if you make it absolutely predictable that the U.S. is going to leave, you aren’t exactly deterring the Taliban from going on with the fighting.”
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