President Obama announced today that he’s going to keep troops in Afghanistan for longer than his original withdrawal timetable.
The move comes after the general in command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan told senators earlier this month that the fall of Kunduz was “absolutely” a victory for the Taliban and President Obama needs to reconsider troops levels there in the face of ISIS’ rise.
Gen. John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the coalition was “surprised” when the Taliban were able to take over Kunduz, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan, late last month.
After 2016, Obama had planned to take the U.S. presence in Afghanistan down to an embassy security force of 1,000. Currently, the U.S. troop level is 9,800.
Campbell said ISIS setting up shop in the country “has further complicated the theater landscape and potentially expanded the conflict.” He didn’t specify what his troop level recommendations to Obama would be.
Obama said today that he’s “decided to maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, 2016. Their mission will not change.”
“Our troops will continue to pursue those two narrow tasks that I outlined earlier — training Afghan forces and going after al-Qaeda. But maintaining our current posture through most of next year, rather than a more rapid drawdown, will allow us to sustain our efforts to train and assist Afghan forces as they grow stronger — not only during this fighting season, but into the next one,” he said.
“Second, I have decided that instead of going down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, we will maintain 5,500 troops at a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.”
Obama noted that the base presence is needed as “Afghanistan is a key piece of the network of counterterrorism partnerships that we need, from South Asia to Africa, to deal more broadly with terrorist threats quickly and prevent attacks against our homeland.”
He also pledged to “work with allies and partners to align the steps I am announcing today with their own presence in Afghanistan after 2016.”
Obama also advocated again for a peace process with the Taliban and the Afghan government, noting that when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visits Washington next week “I will continue to urge all parties in the region to press the Taliban to return to peace talks and to do their part in pursuit of the peace that Afghans deserve.”
“Afghanistan remains dangerous; 25 brave Americans have given their lives there this year,” he said, adding in a message to troops: “I do not send you into harm’s way lightly. It’s the most solemn decision I make. I know the wages of war in the wounded warriors I visit in the hospital and in the grief of Gold Star families. But as your commander in chief, I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation.”
“And to the American people — I know that many of you have grown weary of this conflict. As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests. 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, and the fact that we have an international coalition, I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he’s “pleased” that Obama is keeping troops in the country, but fears it’s not enough.
“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,” McCain said. “The bottom line is that 5,500 troops will only be adequate to conduct either the counterterrorism or the train and advise mission, but not both. Our military commanders have said that both are critical to prevent Afghanistan from spiraling into chaos.”
“At a time when the security situation in key parts of Afghanistan is deteriorating and ISIL is seeking to make in-roads there, it makes no military sense to withdraw U.S. forces. Once again, President Obama is putting our mission in Afghanistan, as well as our men and women serving there, at greater risk, and he is doing so for the sake of a troop reduction that has no political benefit, but could have significant military implications.”
McCain acknowledged that “all of us want the war in Afghanistan to be over, but after 14 years of hard-fought gains, the decisions we make now will determine whether our progress will endure and our sacrifices will not have been in vain.”
“When the stakes are so high, it is hard to understand why the president has again chosen to force our military to shoulder a higher level of risk to be successful,” he said. “It would have been far better to halt all further troop withdrawals and allow President Obama’s successor to determine what is warranted based on conditions on the ground.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the new course of action “averts a disaster,” but “is certainly not a plan for success.”
“Given the troubling conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and the other security problems in the region, keeping 9,800 troops there through at least 2016 is necessary to our security interests,” Thornberry said. “What is completely unnecessary, however, is that while the president is extending the troops’ mission, he would veto the very legislation that provides their pay, benefits, and the authorities they need to get the job done.”
The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House and the Senate with bipartisan majorities earlier this month. Obama objects to using the overseas contingency operations account to fund part of the bill and to not enough perceived budget equality for non-defense spending.