President Obama has unveiled a two-year plan to withdraw all U.S. troop from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, saying the move will mark a strategic shift to better reflect today’s threats.
“The bottom line is, 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,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
“In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe,” he said.
The long-awaited plan calls for leaving about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for about one year after the current combat mission ends in December.
By the end of 2015, the U.S military presence will fall to about 5,000 and the footprint will be limited to Bagram Airfield and Kabul, the capital.
“By the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq,” Obama said.
The initial post-2014 force level is on par with the force size many Pentagon officials have publicly advocated, but the near-term reduction toward 5,000 at the end of 2015 and essentially zero by the end of 2016 is likely to raise concerns about long-term security in Afghanistan.
The time line suggests Obama will oversee the entire withdrawal before he leaves office in January 2017.
There are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 three years ago.
Obama said the troops remaining in Afghanistan after December will be focused on two “narrow missions” that include “training Afghan forces, and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al- Qaida.”
“We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people,” Obama said.
“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans,” Obama said.
The decision comes at a time of intense debate about future defense spending in Washington and a Pentagon proposal to reduce personnel costs by limiting troops’ pay raises, cutting housing allowances, ending commissary subsidies and raising some health care fees.
While Obama has been unable to secure a post-2014 legal agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, he’s moving ahead with plans for next year based on the belief that whoever takes over for Afghan President Hamid Karzai later this year will promptly agree to a bilateral security agreement that will, among other things, offer U.S. troops legal immunity from local prosecution.
Obama’s decision to set a deadline for a 2016 troop withdrawal echoes a similar move in December 2009 when he said he would surge troop levels in Afghanistan beyond 100,000 yet simultaneously offered a time line for bringing those troops home by 2012. Critics say the tactic is flawed.
“It is difficult to predict now what the situation in Afghanistan will be in 2016. Will the Afghan security forces be able to shoulder all their responsibilities? We don’t know that,” said Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghanistan expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
But administration officials said time lines are “prudent planning.”
“We believe it’s necessary for planning purposes to be clear to our own government and to our allies and partners about the commitments that the United States is prepared to make,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. “That allows for everybody to have predictability.”
Majidyar said the 2016 withdraw date will impact the strategic planning for many people in Afghanistan, including local politicians, military leaders and Taliban insurgents.
“There is a psychological factor. This will change a lot of calculations in the region,” he said.
The move drew criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, a Republican from California and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Does the president seek to replicate his mistakes in Iraq where he abandoned the region to chaos and failed to forge a real security partnership? We are in Afghanistan because it was the spawning ground of al-Qaida and the devastating attack on American soil. Those threats still exist. We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security,” McKeon said in a statement Tuesday.
Public opinion polls suggest most Americans are eager to end the 13-year-old war in Afghanistan, which has resulted in the death of more than 2,100 U.S. troops. A Gallup poll in February for the first time showed that more Americans now think sending troops to Afghanistan in 2001 was a mistake. Specifically, 49 percent said it was a mistake, compared to 48 percent who told pollsters it was not a mistake.
Obama subtly rebuffed his critics by noting that today’s wars end differently than those in the past.
“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century, not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility,” Obama said.