Obama leaves troops in Afghanistan

A report from the Washington Post notes the decision of President Obama to keep troops in Afghanistan, “President Obama announced revised troop plans for Afghanistan on Wednesday, keeping 8,400 U.S. troops in the country when he steps down early next year, the clearest indication yet of his inability to end the long war there. “I strongly believe that it is in our national security interest, especially after all the blood and treasure we’ve invested in Afghanistan over the years, that we give our Afghan partners the very best opportunity to succeed,” Obama said in remarks at the White House. He had hoped to leave a force of 5,500 in early 2017”.

It goes on to make the point “The decision is likely to be the last in a series of adjustments that Obama, who came into office promising to end costly U.S. wars in the Muslim world, has made to a withdrawal schedule he hailed in 2014 as proof the United States was “finishing the job” in Afghanistan. That goal has remained stubbornly out of reach as security has deteriorated across Afghanistan in recent years. Local forces, reliant on foreign troops for air power and other kinds of support, have struggled to contain sustained offensives by Taliban militants who, even after the death of their leader this spring, remain a potent force. Obama, speaking alongside Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States is no longer fighting a “major ground war” in Afghanistan. He ticked off a list of accomplishments he said made the country a safer, more inclusive place than it was under the Taliban’s repressive rule. He also acknowledged that the Afghan government would need more time to build up its military capacity before it can stand fully on its own”.

Crucially the article notes “There are now about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, tasked with a dual mission to support local troops and hunt down al-Qaeda and other militants. That compares with a force of about 100,000 stationed there during Obama’s 2010 troop surge. In a conference call with reporters to discuss the announcement, senior administration officials said the revised troop number, a slight decrease from the current level, reflected recommendations from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. The changes were approved by Carter and Dunford, they said. “The president’s guidance was just to have a recommendation as to what the best presence and necessary resources would be at the end of 2016,” said one official who, like others, spoke on a condition of anonymity imposed by the White House”.

The report goes on to add “In a statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Obama’s announcement, which signaled an extension of crucial support at a time when militant attacks have exposed local forces’ weaknesses in key military areas, including intelligence and air power”.

It mentions that “Already over the past two years, Obama had given commanders in Afghanistan new powers to combat militants, an acknowledgment that the official end to U.S. combat operations at the end of 2014 did not signal a halt to the fighting. Daniel F. Feldman, who was Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until last year, said Wednesday’s announcement would send a positive signal to Afghanistan and its neighbours. “It’s important for what it means for military and security resources, and important symbolically in terms of demonstrating continued commitment,” Feldman said. Pakistan, where Taliban leaders are believed to reside, continues to play an important role in Afghanistan’s fate. But Wednesday’s decision could be a political liability for Obama, opening him to criticism for altering earlier plans, while failing to satisfy Republicans who believe Afghanistan’s insecurity merits a larger force”.

Not supursingly, it makes the point that “Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would have preferred to keep current troop levels untouched. “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 in a statement. As part of current military plans, the United States will also maintain six major bases across Afghanistan. That will afford U.S. and NATO troops greater reach into contested areas and make it easier to rebuild a larger force if the next U.S. president decides to do so. The announcement comes several days before Obama attends a NATO summit in Poland that had imposed something of a deadline on the White House”.

Importantly for the case of context it adds, “Officials acknowledged that about 40 governments participating in the Afghanistan effort, including many from NATO, want to know how to calibrate their own contributions of about 6,000 troops. Germany and Italy make the largest contributions, with nearly 1,000 troops each. The announcement “allows us to have a more constructive discussion at the NATO summit,” an official said. Officials did not specify what additional funds would be needed to maintain troop levels beyond the initially budgeted 5,500 but said they would discuss the matter with Congress”.

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