The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, would be completely ended no later than 2016.
Reporters on Tuesday morning received a statement on background from a senior administration official declaring that President Obama would on Tuesday “announce that our combat mission will be over by 2014.” The official added that the United States is open to two sorts of narrow missions after that date: “training Afghan forces and supporting CT [counter-terrorism] operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.” Currently, the plan is that at the start of 2015, there will be only 9,800 U.S. servicemembers present in Afghanistan — down from the peak of nearly 100,000 after a surge of forces in 2010. As of earlier this year, there were roughly 38,000 U.S. forces still on the ground in Afghanistan.
“By the end of 2015, we would reduce that presence by roughly half, consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield,” the official continued. “And one year later, by the end of 2016, we will draw down to a normal Embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as we have done in Iraq.” The announcement comes one-day before President Obama delivers the commencement address at West Point Military Academy, a speech that is being touted as a major foreign policy address.
“The United States did not seek this fight,” President Obama said in his speech framing the withdrawal. “We went into Afghanistan out of necessity,” he said, noting that the war has lasted longer than many Americans expected. But as a result of the conflict, Obama said, is that the United States has “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. ” Obama also stressed that it was only after speaking with both Congress and his national security team to make the decision to “no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys” after this year.
“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place,” Obama said of the state of the country after America leaves. “And it is not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans. But what the United States can do, what we will do, is secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity to seek a long overdue and hard-earned peace.”
The precise timing of the pullout will depend on the decision of whomever wins Afghanistan’s next presidential election. So far, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) drafted between the U.S. and his government to allow troops on the ground after 2014. Both the candidates to replace him — former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — have indicated that they will do so once they take office. The White House clearly remains wary, given that they framed the pullout’s timeline as “[a]ssuming that the BSA is signed,” but a senior administration official told reporters before Obama’s speech that the candidate’s willingness to sign gave the president the “confidence” to make this announcement.
The announced timeframe roughly tracks with a long-announced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of this year. What has been up for debate has been the total number of troops left behind. At times, the administration appeared to be mulling the so-called “zero option,” leaving behind no troops at all in the country that has seen an American military presence since October 2001, in the event no BSA is signed. The number of troops being considered for a remaining force in Afghanistan has also been as high as 20,000.
As the military drawdown moves forward, the Central Intelligence Agency is also reportedly pulling back on their activities in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast and Los Angeles Times reported that the CIA is preparing to “shutter operations outside Kabul, removing CIA case officers and analysts as well as National Security Agency specialists responsible for intercepting insurgent phone calls and other communications.” The drawdown, taken as forward operating bases where CIA paramilitary operations could launch are closing, also leaves up in the air the question of what will happen to the salaries of the Afghan paramilitary groups helping in the fight against the Taliban.
The announcement will likely be welcomed among the allies who have been waiting for the U.S. to act before considering their own next steps in Afghanistan. For the last decade, the U.S. has been fighting alongside its NATO allies as part of the International Security Assistance Force. Last year, ISAF handed over the reins for fighting against the Taliban and providing security to the Afghan National Security Forces, taking on more of an assisting role. NATO writ large has been waiting for the U.S.’ final numbers and the signing of the BSA remaining before announcing how many of their forces will remain after the end of combat operations this year and completing their own Status of Forces Agreement with the Afghan government.
“It’s time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy has focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “I think Americans have learned that it is harder to end wars than it is to begin them.” The toll the wars have taken on the country since 2001 bears that assessment out. Since the start of combat more than a dozen years ago, 2,184 American military personnel have died in Afghanistan — of those 1,816 were killed in combat. Another 19,600 have been wounded in action. March marked the first month in more than a decade that no soldier died in combat, a statistic that will soon hopefully become the norm again.