President Obama will hand off the 15-year-old war in Afghanistan to a third president, he said Wednesday, acknowledging that he will fall short of his campaign-era promise to extract the U.S. from punishing ground wars overseas.
In announcing that he will leave 8,400 military personnel in Afghanistan through the end of his presidency, Obama backed off his pledge to reduce the U.S. presence there to embassy staff and accompanying security forces by the end of the year. Taliban fighters running roughshod over the impaired Afghan military forced Obama's hand.
"The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious," Obama said from the White House's Roosevelt Room. "Even as they improve, Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be."
The president vowed that the U.S. role would center on training and advising Afghan troops, and he emphasized the military's shrunken footprint in Afghanistan, down from a high of more than 100,000 troops early in his administration.
"Even as we've maintained a relentless case against those who are threatening us, we are no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan," Obama said.
His decision reflects his limited ability to influence the sobering reality in Afghanistan after he declared an end to U.S. combat there in 2014. Afghan forces, riddled with complacency and corruption since their inception and taking orders from a fragile and fractured government, lack intelligence-gathering and air power capabilities to ward off attacks. The Taliban controls more territory than it has since the U.S.-led invasion there began in 2001, according to U.N. estimates. The economy in the country, already one of the world's poorest, has suffered as the tens of thousands of U.S. troops and the sprawling infrastructure sustaining them has disappeared.
"Afghanistan is not a perfect place," Obama acknowledged. "Given the enormous challenges they face, the Afghan people will need the partnership of the world — led by the United States — for many years to come."
Some in Obama's own party were dismayed by the decision. The longest war in American history "just got longer," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a senior House Democrat. "I agree with President Obama that the only way to end this conflict is through a lasting political settlement," he said, "but continuing America's military presence in Afghanistan is not the answer."
President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, first sent American troops into Afghanistan in October 2001 to eradicate a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and to oust the ruling Taliban, which provided a safe haven for the perpetrators of 9/11. It proved relatively easy to topple the Taliban, but difficult to pacify or unify a poverty-stricken country ruled by warlords.
Obama promised two years ago to eventually reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to merely "a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component" by the start of next year. But with counter-terrorism efforts faltering in the country, Obama said he concluded that cutting troop levels in service of that goal would be irresponsible.
For years, Obama had fought such a concession against pressure from military leaders. Pentagon officials, haunted by the chaos in Iraq after Obama's decision to disengage the U.S. military there, were concerned that a speedy withdrawal in Afghanistan would create more instability.
The total of 8,400 troops reflects the assessment of Afghanistan submitted last month to Obama by Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the new commander for U.S. and NATO forces in the country, a Defense Department official said in a background call with reporters. The U.S. role in southwest Asia and the Middle East as a whole is undergoing a shift, from securing volatile areas to supporting local forces in their effort to do so, and Obama was set to leave Washington on Thursday for a summit in Poland with fellow NATO leaders to reassess their strategy in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed Obama's decision but had reservations.
"When the president himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as 'precarious,' it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 U.S. troops by the end of the year," he said.
Indeed, battles with the Taliban last year revealed glaring weaknesses in Afghan security forces, and U.S. special operations troops still accompany Afghan forces on combat missions, while fighter jets and drones provide air support to ground troops. In May, the U.S. killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour southwest of the remote town of Ahmad Wal, in western Pakistan, in a drone strike authorized by Obama.
But one U.S. air attack mistakenly hit an international hospital in Kunduz in October, killing 42 medical workers, patients and other Afghans and wounding dozens more.
And the Taliban has stepped up the fight across southern Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces and directed suicide bombings inside populated cities. Last week, more than 30 Afghans were killed when two suicide bombers attacked a convoy of buses carrying newly graduated police officers who were traveling to Kabul from a training center in neighboring Wardak province.
The Pentagon set the stage for Obama's announcement last month when it reported changes to rules that restricted airstrikes against Taliban targets, a signal that military leaders had concluded that troop numbers needed to remain constant. The Taliban will continue to threaten southern Afghanistan from its stronghold in Helmand province as the summer fighting season goes on, Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul, warned last month.
The military presence might well outlast even Obama's successor, analysts said.
"I would be surprised if there's a decision quickly to draw down further because we saw what happened in Iraq when we did that," said Andrew Wilder, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent federal institution that analyzes conflict around the world.
"If we pull them out quickly," he warned, "the government could collapse and Afghanistan could go back into being an ungoverned space, a haven for transnational terrorist groups."
1:57 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comment and background.
11:13 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details details and background.
8:20 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details.