A 'Monumental Mistake'? Obama Details Afghanistan Withdrawal Plan

WASHINGTON -- National security hawks in Congress quickly slammed President Obama's Rose Garden announcement detailing the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan as a "monumental mistake" put into action to score political points.

Obama said the U.S. objectives requiring a residual force beyond the year-end withdrawal will be "disrupting threats posed by al-Qaeda, supporting Afghan security forces, and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own."

"First, America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country. American personnel will be in an advisory role. We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people," the president said. "Second, I’ve made it clear that we’re open to cooperating with Afghans on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda."

At the beginning of 2015, the administration plans to have about 9,800 service members across the country, with half that by the end of the year consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram air base. At the end of 2016 that will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, similar to the contingent with a security team in Baghdad.

"We will only sustain this military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that our two governments have already negotiated," Obama added. Both of the candidates in the presidential runoff to succeed Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have indicated support for the BSA.

"The bottom line is, it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," he continued. "When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000. In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe."

"…We can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we’ll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world."

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) begged to differ with that in their joint statement.

“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. This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly," the trio said. “The president came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited. But wars do not end just because politicians say so. The president appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq."

The announcement will not only embolden enemies, the senators warned, but "will fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead."

“The alternative was not war without end. It was a limited assistance mission to help the Afghan Security Forces preserve momentum on the battlefield and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict. The achievement of this goal, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground, not by the President’s concern for his legacy," Ayotte, Graham and McCain said.

“All wars end. The question is how they end. The war in Iraq has ended in tragedy. And it is difficult to see how we can succeed in Afghanistan when the President tells our enemies that our troops will leave by a date certain whether they have achieved our goals or not."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Obama's decision as one that "will help ensure that al-Qaeda cannot reconstitute itself in Afghanistan." Secretary of State John Kerry said that "with President Obama's announcement today of what America's presence will look like in Afghanistan after combat operations end in 2014, our nation’s longest war is coming to a responsible end."

"Routing out al-Qaeda's core leadership has been our most important mission in Afghanistan, and because of our focused and targeted efforts, we have significantly degraded the terrorist group's capabilities there," Kerry added.

White House Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told CNN that the price tag for keeping troops in Afghanistan next year will be about $20 billion.

"We want to complete the job that we started. And we've been on a very clear trajectory under this president to end the war responsibly. And that means as we draw down our troops, building up the Afghans to the point where they can take full responsibility for their own security and their own future. And that's exactly what we've been doing," Blinken said.

In 2012, Obama said U.S. troops would be "all out of there by 2014."

"We never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban," a senior administration official said on background today. "And in fact, we were very clear after the review in 2009 that we were not going to set as a U.S. objective eradicating Taliban presence or influence in Afghanistan."

The announcement preceded Obama's Wednesday commencement address at West Point, where he's expected to lay out his comprehensive foreign policy vision.

Of the Afghanistan plan, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) noted that "holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically."

"Does the president seek to replicate his mistakes in Iraq where he abandoned the region to chaos and failed to forge a real security partnership? We are in Afghanistan because it was the spawning ground of al-Qaeda and the devastating attack on American soil," McKeon said. "Those threats still exist. We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security."

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said he thinks the administration is "following through on its goal of responsibly reducing our active involvement in Afghanistan."

“We cannot and should not continue to maintain a large presence in Afghanistan forever, but we also cannot overlook our national security interest in the region. The announcement today demonstrates that the president understands this balance," Smith said. "…There will be other decisions to be made in the future about our assistance to the Afghan government, but the American people have paid a significant price in this conflict and it is time that we allow the Afghan people to take responsibility for their own future.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said it's "appropriate" that Obama decided to keep some troop presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year.

"That being said, I question whether the policy reflected by these numbers and timelines truly confronts the threat we face," Rogers said. "Even now, an al-Qaeda safe haven is emerging in northeastern Afghanistan; and I question whether the enemy will take further advantage of the announced timeline to renew its efforts to launch new operations, as we see them attempting in Iraq and Syria today."