President Obama is planning to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. ends its combat mission this year, but will quickly cut that number roughly in half by the end of 2015, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
Obama plans on consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and at the Bagram Airfield. Under the plan, by the end of 2016 the U.S. will draw down to “a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as we have done in Iraq,” the official said.
After more than 12 years of war, the U.S. is open to supporting two “narrow missions” in the country – training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against what remains of Al Qaeda.
In remarks later Tuesday, Obama is expected to say that the plan is contingent on the signing of a bilateral security agreement with the new Afghan president.
President Hamid Karzai has refused to close a deal that would protect the rights of Americans remaining in the country, but White House aides say Obama is heartened by the promises of the two main Afghan presidential candidates to sign the agreement quickly if elected.
The troops levels for January 2015 track what the Pentagon has requested in recent months. Military officials say a presence of 10,000 troops is necessary to protect training, counterterrorism and intelligence gathering.
The drawdown schedule would bring U.S. troop levels down to below 5,000 by the end of 2015, a steeper decline than many in the Pentagon favored. There are 32,800 U.S. troops in the country.
The plan would keep at least some troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2016 to help Afghan troops hold off what is expected to be a resurgence in the insurgency.
The U.S. forces are expected to be in the south and east of the country, as well as in Kabul and at Bagram air base, north of the capital.
Troops from other NATO countries are expected to have responsibility for the north and east of Afghanistan. But exactly how many troops other countries will contribute and how long they will stay remains unknown.
Obama’s announcement comes as the White House is trying to refocus a somewhat scattered foreign policy agenda. White House officials say the president plans to try to clarify his top priorities in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday.
The remarks will describe the president’s vision for his remaining years in office and also seek to push back against those who say Obama has bounced from crisis to crisis without a consistent approach to U.S. intervention – sending mixed messages to allies and foes.
The criticism has largely focused on Obama’s handling of conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Obama’s plans in Afghanistan will serve to put greater public focus on a region the White House believes is more stable. Obama came into office promising to wind down the war in Afghanistan and is on track to leave the White house in 2016 with a minimal force of U.S. troops there.