President Obama's plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fewer than 10,000 by year's end seeks to balance fear that a speedier withdrawal would push Afghan forces to collapse against his desire to end more than a decade of war.
The result is to keep some U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan until the end of his presidency but potentially leave the final outcome of the war to his successor.
After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, "I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," Obama said Tuesday in a brief statement in the White House Rose Garden, where he announced the decision on troop levels.
But, he said, "we have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one."
Four years ago, in a major speech at West Point announcing a buildup of troops in Afghanistan, Obama said that he was "convinced that our security is at stake" in the outcome there. That led to a deployment of additional U.S. troops that for a time brought the total to 100,000.
In his remarks Tuesday announcing the withdrawal of most of the 32,000 who remain, he suggested the U.S. had achieved the major goals that justified the war.
"We have struck significant blows against Al Qaeda's leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden, and we've prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against our homeland.
"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 said.
Starting next year, Obama said, the U.S. will end its combat missions in Afghanistan, and though 9,800 American troops will remain, as well as some from allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Afghans will be "fully responsible" for securing their country, with the U.S. no longer patrolling "Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys."
The remaining U.S. troops will train Afghan units, protect U.S. diplomats and intelligence agents and take part in counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.
Obama plans to return to West Point on Wednesday for what aides are billing as a major foreign policy speech, albeit one designed to lay out a broad vision rather than to revisit a difficult war. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been injured since the war began in 2001. The death toll this year — just over 20 — is far lower than in previous years, reflecting the decline in U.S. combat operations.
The president's decision gave the U.S. military fewer troops than it had requested for next year and for significantly less time than it had sought.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander in Afghanistan, had requested at least 10,000 troops and for months had pushed to keep them at least through 2015.
The White House accepted much of that plan, including Dunford's call to array forces around the country, especially in the south and east, where the insurgency is strongest. But Obama and his advisors, who had been skeptical that more time would significantly change the situation, opted for a relatively quick drawdown.
The force will be down to 5,000 troops by the end of 2015, based solely in Kabul and at the Bagram air base, north of the capital. By the time Obama leaves office, the troop presence will have shrunk to no more than a "normal embassy presence" based in Kabul, officials said.
Keeping any forces in Afghanistan after the end of this year is contingent on that country's next president signing a security deal that will authorize their presence and give them immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a harsh critic of U.S. policy in his country, has refused for months to sign a bilateral security agreement his government negotiated with Washington last fall. But both of the candidates in next month's runoff election to replace him have indicated they would sign it.
During months of debate over the size and mission of the remaining force, some White House officials had talked of a so-called zero option, in which no U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan after this year. Others pushed a plan that would have kept 7,000 to 8,000 troops, based mostly at Bagram and in Kabul, with a narrow mission focused on going after the remnants of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the end, Obama sided with military commanders who warned that Afghanistan's security forces, which still cannot conduct complicated missions on their own, might collapse entirely if the U.S. pulled out so quickly. U.S. officials also worried that without the presence of American troops, Congress would cut funds for the Afghan forces, a move that they warned could allow the Taliban insurgency to rapidly overwhelm the government.
Afghanistan now has more than 340,000 soldiers and police officers, and many units have performed well in recent years. But high desertion rates, drug use and illiteracy continue to beset the force, and many basic parts, including an air force, medical care and logistics, are still in their infancy.
As with most such compromise decisions, Obama's announcement drew attacks from both sides, with Republicans and other hawks saying that he was putting Afghanistan at risk by too rapid a withdrawal while some liberal Democrats said he was moving too slowly to bring the war to an end.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who leads his party's hawkish wing, decried Obama's decision to "set an arbitrary date" for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. He called it "a shortsighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he welcomed the president's decision to "support a troop presence in Afghanistan next year" but also said the biggest risk would lie in "quitting just short of the goal line."
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), one of her party's most liberal members, said it was "far past time to end the war and bring all of our troops home."
Stephen Biddle, a national security expert and professor at George Washington University, called the Obama plan a "split decision" that will keep U.S. troops in place, but for too short a period for the Afghan army to defeat the Taliban insurgency or for the two sides to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Congress is unlikely to continue to fund the Afghan army and police after 2016, when virtually all U.S. troops will depart. Without U.S. backing for the Afghan security forces, the Taliban could regain the upper hand and the government in Kabul could face collapse, Biddle said.
Others noted that Obama's plan offered no solution to one of the problems at the root of the Afghan conflict: the sanctuary that insurgent groups enjoy in neighboring Pakistan.
"I just don't see what this is supposed to accomplish," said C. Christine Fair, an Afghan expert and a Georgetown University professor. "Now we have the worst of all worlds: a very small troop presence while we still haven't dealt with the Pakistan problem."
The decision came a day before Obama's address to the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy, where in 2009 he first embraced the war in Afghanistan by announcing the troop buildup. Some of Wednesday's 1,000 graduates will be bound for the final tours of duty in Afghanistan.
After months of a foreign policy dominated by the need to respond to fire alarms around the world, Obama is planning to use this year's commencement speech to lay out an overall explanation of his vision of U.S. leadership, one that is "interventionist," but not unilateral in its actions, according to a senior administration official familiar with the speech who discussed it on condition of anonymity.
Alluding to that message, Obama said Tuesday that the Afghanistan withdrawal is part of a larger plan at a time of global change.