Barack Obama has abandoned his longstanding goal of ending the war in Afghanistan – the longest in US history – and suggested he may need to make further adjustments in troop numbers before his presidency ends.
After months of deliberation within his administration, the US president said he would leave 5,500 US forces in Afghanistan beyond his departure from office in January 2017.
It reverses his previous plan, announced in spring 2014, to cut troop levels to that number in 2015, which US military commanders had prevailed upon Obama to abandon, citing an escalation in Taliban attacks.
Many within the Pentagon and Congress had used the example of the Islamic State takeover of much of Iraq after the 2011 US withdrawal to argue against risking a repeat in Afghanistan – an argument that withstood the 3 October US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz that killed 22 people and wounded 37.
The present force of 9,800 US troops will remain in the country throughout most of next year. Those who remain into 2017 will be dispersed at three major hubs around the country, training the fledgling Afghan security services and hunting Taliban and al-Qaida targets.
“This isn’t the first time those adjustments have been made, this probably won’t be the last,” Obama said.
Acknowledging that he will not end the war that he escalated and then pledged to “responsibly” conclude, Obama said: “I suspect we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president.”
Obama blamed the strategic volte-face on weaker than expected Afghan security forces, but insisted they were still capable of assuming full responsibility eventually.
“The bottom line is in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile and in some places there is risk of deterioration,” said the president.
“Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be … meanwhile the Taliban has made gains,” he added.
The president claimed that the continued US troop presence was not a replacement for effective Afghan security forces and did not amount to a change in the strategy of training and supporting local forces rather than leading combat operations.
“Every day Afghan forces are dying to support their country, they are not looking for us to do it for them,” he said.
“The nature of our mission has not changed and the cessation of our combat role has not changed.”
He also called on American voters to have patience with his strategy, which has been criticised for encouraging Taliban resistance by repeatedly promising that Nato forces would withdraw.
“I know that many of you have grown weary of this conflict,” said Obama. “I do not support the idea of endless war … yet, given what’s at stake in Afghanistan and the opportunity for a stable and committed ally that can partner with us in preventing the emergence of future threats … I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
To US forces, which have suffered 25 fatalities this year, he added: “I do not send you into harm’s way lightly – this is the most solemn decision I make – but as your commander in chief I believe this mission is vital to our national security.”
Beyond his presidency, Afghanistan will be a “key piece of the network of counter-terrorism partnership we need” throughout the Middle East and south Asia, Obama said.
Former US military commanders said the 5,500 troop level was below the “minimum” requirements for an effective US force, and questioned if Obama will actually shrink force levels to that size before leaving office.
Continued Taliban progress will “put President Obama in his final days in office in a dilemma and his successor in a dilemma”, said retired army lieutenant general Dan Bolger, an Afghanistan veteran who once led the training of the Afghan military.
“These numbers aren’t based on how many advisers or air support they need, they’re just numbers. The military will do what they can,” Bolger said.
Aides to Obama indicated that the administration had decided on a troop number before figuring out which forces will train Afghans and which will hunt al-Qaida and related targets.
“Apportionment across the two narrow mission sets that we have … is still left to be decided and something that we’re going to engage with our Nato partners on to determine what’s most appropriate,” said Christine Abizaid, a senior Pentagon policy official.
Last week, Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, testified to Congress that he did not support Obama’s plan to reduce troop levels to a force based around the US embassy in Kabul. Campbell said that the Taliban, which briefly overran the northern city of Kunduz, was fighting harder than in previous years, and the Afghan military that the US has sponsored for a decade continues to exhibit key weaknesses in sustainment and air support.
Campbell on Thursday said Obama’s decision “provides us [with] the ability to further develop a lasting strategic relationship with our Afghan partners and allows us to counter the rise of violent extremism in a volatile part of the world”.
The Republican leadership on the armed services committees indicated their backing for the slowdown in the troop withdrawals, while signalling their disbelief that the residual 5,500-troop presence was realistic.
“It is highly unlikely that a force level of 5,500 troops was recommended as the best professional judgment of our senior military leaders and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan,” said John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee.
“The bottom line is that 5,500 troops will only be adequate to conduct either the counter-terrorism or the train-and-advise mission, but not both. Our military commanders have said that both are critical to prevent Afghanistan from spiralling into chaos.”
McCain’s counterpart in the House, Mac Thornberry of Texas, commented: “While this new plan avoids a disaster, it is certainly not a plan for success.”
The revision in Obama’s plan was not deterred by one of the highest-profile disasters of the 14-year-old war: the 3 October US airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders’ field hospital in Kunduz. The group, known by its French acronym MSF,has called the attack a war crime and has sought an international inquiry, a step Obama has thus far declined to endorse. MSF launched an online petition to pressure Obama on Thursday.
Other Nato countries with troops in Afghanistan – including Georgia, Germany, Romania, Turkey and the UK – are likely to mirror the US extension. Germany has already said it is willing to extend its presence by one year.
Obama’s statement was well received by the Kabul government, which Obama said had requested the extra troops.
“This was very much expected, and it’s welcome news,” said Daud Sultanzoy, an adviser to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. “Mr Obama made a decision based on recommendations from his military commanders, and that is how it should be.”
He said that while the announcement would help stabilise the country for now, the mandate of the international troops in Afghanistan remained the same.
“One thing we need to remember is that while the withdrawal is delayed, the nature of the mission has not changed. It is still train, advise, assist,” he said, referring to the three elements of Nato’s Afghanistan mission since January. “It is up to us to elevate our capabilites, and it is [our allies’] responsibility to get us to that.”
Sultanzoy emphasised that the war in Afghanistan included more actors than just the national government, the armed opposition and the international coalition. Countries such as Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Uzbekistan all had a stake in the conflict, he said.
“This is not just an Afghan war,” he said, “and it would behoove our allies to look at this war and the region and realise that this requires much larger attention.”
Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan MP who has previously been critical of US plans to withdraw troops, welcomed Obama’s announcement. “It is not a choice” for the US to keep troops in Afghanistan, she said, “it is an obligation.”
Barakzai added: “The US has created a lot of problems for Afghans, ever since the cold war, so it has a responsibility to help and support Afghans.”
Barakzai said that previous public announcements about reducing the US military presence had bolstered the Taliban, giving the insurgents time to prepare the offensives carried out this year. Now, she said, the US needed to be clear about what exactly its troops were going to contribute to Afghanistan, with military power alone not sufficient.
“I believe the US should focus more on building the infrastructure of the Afghan economy. One main reason for the war is the poor economy,” she said.
Cautiously welcoming Obama’s decision, Abdul Waheed Wafa, executive director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, said that although the proposed 5,500 troops would not be enough to sufficiently train government troops and quell the insurgency, “it will be a big boost to the morale of the Afghan national security forces”.
“It will not deter the Taliban’s ambition to gain more territory,” he said, “but it will be a message to them that the international and especially the American commitment to Afghanistan will remain, and it will slow the pace of the Taliban.”
For several years, the prospects of the US withdrawal had loomed over Afghanistan, while the country struggled with a poor economy, deteriorating security situation and a weak government, Wafa said.
“Currently, Afghanistan is facing a lot of challenges at once,” he said. “Giving the troops one year more is good enough for the moment. And delaying the troops also means that President Obama listens to his generals, who always said we should withdraw based on the situation on the ground.”
The White House suggested that primary responsibility for the persistence of the war continued to lay with predecessor George W Bush.
“The scale of the challenge that the next president faces is much smaller than the scale of the challenge faced by this country when president Obama took office,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Source: The Guardian