WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama announced Thursday that U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan at their current levels throughout much of 2016, marking yet another delay in the administration’s plans for completing its withdrawal from the 14-year conflict.
Speaking at the White House, Obama highlighted U.S. gains in Afghanistan and noted that the Afghan government and its security forces are now “fully responsible for securing their country.” But he also said that the U.S. still needs to bolster those forces.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and and its people endures,” Obama said from the Roosevelt Room. “As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
The decision to maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until nearly the end of Obama’s time in office comes after months of discussions with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, and the nation’s CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, senior administration officials said Wednesday night. Obama also consulted with U.S. military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan as well as his entire national security team, officials added.
According to the new White House plan, the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan would drop to 5,500 by early 2017, as Obama prepares to leave office. At that point, U.S. forces would be based in the Afghan capital of Kabul, as well as in military installations in Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.
“The President will announce the results of what has been extensive and months long review,” a senior administration official said.
This is the second draw-down delay announced by Obama this year. In March, Obama said he planned to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan 5,500 U.S. military personnel by the end of this year, and then to an “embassy-only” presence by the end of 2016.
“The timeline for a withdrawal down to a embassy center presence, a normalization of our presence in Afghanistan, remains the end of 2016,” Obama said in a joint press conference with Ghani last March.
Administration officials stressed U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan would continue to serve under two missions — to root out remnants of al Qaeda as well as train and equip Afghan security forces. U.S. forces could also conduct counterterrorism operations against elements of ISIS in Afghanistan, should the group present a threat to the U.S. homeland, senior administration officials added.
The original White House goal was to hand over the counterterrorism side of the U.S. mission to Afghan security forces this year.
“It’s in our interest to build up the Afghan security forces,” said a senior administration official.
The estimated annual cost of maintaining current U.S. force levels in Afghanistan is $14.6 billion, a separate senior administration official said.
Obama’s announcement is a major political reversal as he vowed to conclude the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan before he leaves office.
“We will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” Obama said at a Rose Garden ceremony in May 2014.
Retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a CNN military analyst and former intelligence officer, said Obama’s decision is simply “kicking this can down the road” for the next president. Obama will be out of office by the time troops are set to be drawn down again.
“This is this administration pushing this off to the next administration because the next time they have to make this decision, it will be a different president in the White House,” Francona said.