President Barack Obama, declaring that it was "time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," announced Tuesday that he planned to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Under a new timetable outlined by Obama in the Rose Garden, the 32,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan would be reduced to 9,800 after this year. That number would be cut in half by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2016, there would be only a vestigial force to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and to help the Afghans with military purchases and other security matters.
At the height of American involvement, in 2011, the United States had 100,000 troops in the country.
Obama said the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan would free up resources to confront an emerging terrorist threat stretching from the Middle East to North Africa — a strategy he plans to detail in a commencement address today at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
"Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," he said. "Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century."
Despite Obama's attempt to signal the end of 13 years of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to have troops engaged in lethal counterterrorism operations there for at least two more years.
Republican critics in Congress said that, even though Obama accepted the recommendation of his generals to leave behind a substantial residual force, the rigid deadline for troops' departure could expose Afghanistan to the same violence and instability that has erupted in Iraq since the pullout of the last U.S. soldiers in 2011. Military commanders had recommended leaving at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for several years after the formal end of the combat mission in 2014.
Besides carrying out operations against the remnants of al-Qaida, the troops that stay behind will train Afghan security forces. But from 2015 onward, they will be quartered at Bagram Airfield and in Kabul, the capital. While they will be supplemented by NATO troops, alliance members are likely to follow the U.S. lead in pulling out by the end of 2016.
The unilateral nature of Obama's announcement underscored the loss of trust between him and President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States. Any U.S. deployments after 2014 will hinge on the Afghans' signing the agreement, Obama said, though he noted that both candidates in the runoff election to replace Karzai have promised to do so.
Obama briefed Karzai by phone on Tuesday morning, as well as leaders of three NATO partners with troops in Afghanistan: Britain, Germany and Italy. On Sunday, Karzai declined an invitation to meet the president at the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, where Obama had made an unannounced trip to greet the troops.
The president is clearly driven by a determination to shift the focus of his counterterrorism policy from al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a more diffuse set of militant threats, some linked to al-Qaida, that have sprung up from Syria to Nigeria.
Today, Obama will emphasize Syria's growing status as a haven for terrorism and signal greater support for the opposition, the New York Times reported, citing an unnamed official. Among the options on the table, officials said, is expanding the covert training program for rebels, currently run by the CIA in Jordan.
The training could also take place in nearby countries. But the official cautioned that the president had not made a decision and was unlikely to discuss the matter in any detail at West Point. He is, however, expected to pledge greater U.S. support for the counterterrorism efforts of Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and other countries that border Syria.
Obama's Afghanistan announcement has ignited a broader debate about military strategy and the most effective way to wind down a war. A senior administration official said a fixed withdrawal schedule would provide NATO allies and the Afghans with "predictability" while also driving home the limits of the U.S. effort.