Obama delays U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, again
American troops will continue to remain in Afghanistan through the end of Barack Obama's presidency, prolonging a 14-year conflict that Obama pledged to wrap up by 2014.
Obama announced on Oct. 15 a new White House plan that lays out a "modest but meaningful extension of our presence" in the country, the second time the administration has stalled withdrawal this year alone.
The decision to delay withdrawal resulted from months of consultation with national security advisers, Afghan leadership and international partners. It also comes on the heels of the Taliban's first takeover of any Afghan city, at a time when "the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration," Obama said.
"While America's combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures," he said. "As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again."
The combat mission came to a symbolic conclusion in December 2014, when we last looked at this promise. By then, the United States had reduced its military presence in Afghanistan by 90 percent from its peak of 100,000 troops in 2010 and 30,000 in early 2014. Nonetheless, boots were still on the ground.
The White House said last year that the number of U.S. troops would be reduced to 5,500 by the end of 2015, and all troops would be out by the end of 2016. In December 2014, we rated Obama's pledge a Compromise, but he's done some more backtracking since then.
By March 2015, the administration had given up on the first part of the plan, opting instead to maintain 9,800 troops through year's end. Obama repeatedly affirmed a goal of an embassy-only presence by 2016.
This new timeline, however, not only pushes back the withdrawal date, but calls for the United States to maintain an indefinite presence in Afghanistan. The 9,800 U.S. troops currently in the country will now stay in place through most of 2016. After Obama leaves office in 2017, 5,500 troops will remain on a small number of military bases.
Experts say the pledge to "end the war in Afghanistan" was ill-advised and impractical to begin with.
"It was a promise which should have not been made but for political reasons, as everybody recognizes. From the beginning everyone said it should be condition based," said Marvin Weinbaum, the scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. "There's no way he could keep that strict time table."
"It is better to break a foolish promise than to keep it and make the situation worse," said Max Boot, a senior fellow on national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview. "In fact today we are already paying a price for his earlier drawdown to 10,000 troops — too few to help Afghan forces effectively hold back a resurgent Taliban movement."
Obama's most recent Afghanistan plan has evolved in these past two years and is a complete reversal from what he pledged during his 2012 re-election campaign. We're not weighing in on whether it would be wrong or right for him to keep his word, just noting that he hasn't. We rate this a Promise Broken.
Wall Street Journal, "Transcript: Obama's Remarks on Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal Shift," Oct. 15, 2015
White House, "Remarks by President Obama and President Ghani of Afghanistan in Joint Press Conference," March 24, 2015
White House, "U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Statement," March 24, 2015
CNN, "Obama again delays Afghanistan troop drawdown," Oct. 15, 2015
New York Times, "Obama Announces Halt of U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan," Oct. 15, 2015
The Guardian, "White House drops plans to reduce US forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 this year," March 14, 2015
Email interview with Max Boot, senior fellow on national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 15, 2015
Interview with Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, Oct. 15, 2015
Combat mission in Afghanistan ends
During his 2012 re-election campaign, President Barack Obama pledged to "end the war in Afghanistan in 2014." As straightforward as that might sound, disentangling U.S. involvement in Afghanistan remains a complicated proposition.
On Dec. 28, 2014, a ceremony symbolically marked the end of the combat mission.
"For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan," Obama said in a statement. "Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."
The formal end of the combat mission happened because of newly elected leadership for the Afghanistan government, which ratified the Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO Status of Forces Agreement.
About 10,800 American troops will stay in Afghanistan in 2015 -- down from 38,000 at the start of 2014. Those remaining troops will continue missions focused on counter-terrorism and training. (Obama had said in 2012 he expected some troops to remain past 2014 for those tasks.)
The White House said it plans to reduce remaining troops by about half by the end of 2015, and Obama wants all troops out by the end of 2016, when he leaves the Oval Office.
A NATO-led mission, Operation Resolute Support, will begin in January 2015. It is not designed to get involved in combat. Instead, troops are to advise, train and assist Afghan institutions and forces, who in turn will be tasked with assuming all security responsibility in the country.
Experts told us that it's important to remember that just because America's combat mission will end in Afghanistan doesn't mean that the conflict is over. The situation in Afghanistan isn't entirely stable -- Afghan security forces continue to butt heads with insurgents.
Retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, said the United States. has "made a significant intellectual error in equating withdrawing from wars from ending wars." He compared the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan to the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, where the United States has recently been drawn back into conflict.
Meanwhile, in a Reuters column, Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon said he doubts that Obama will withdraw the remaining troops troops by 2016.
"Beyond leaving in jeopardy the U.S. effort to stabilize and bring democracy to Afghanistan, this policy would deprive the United States of bases that it uses to fly drones and launch commando raids in the region — in eastern Afghanistan or western Pakistan — against al-Qaida targets," O'Hanlon wrote.
"In 2015, Obama will have to figure all this out."
"The use of force by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan will be limited to circumstances in which the use of force is necessary to execute our two narrow post-2014 missions," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told PolitiFact.
So while Obama has gone a long way to meeting his promise, we don't feel it's appropriate to gloss over the complexities of the Afghanistan endgame. Several thousand troops remain, and they are authorized to continue "targeting the remnants of al-Qaida." This promise accomplishes some of what Obama said he would do, but it's too early to say the promise has been substantially kept. For now, we see it as partially kept and so rate it Compromise.
White House, "Remarks by the President to Military and Civilian Personnel at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst," Dec. 15, 2014
ISAF, "ISAF Joint Command ends mission, makes history," Dec. 8, 2014
NATO, "NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan," Dec. 18, 2014
NATO, "NATO's commitment to Afghanistan after 2014," December 2014
U.S. Mission to NATO, "NATO's New Chapter in Afghanistan," accessed Dec. 23, 2014
New York Times, "Taliban Push Into Afghan Districts That U.S. Had Secured," Dec. 22, 2014
Los Angeles Times, "What lies ahead for U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq," Dec. 29, 2014
Reuters, "Prediction: Obama will decide to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016," Dec. 22, 2014
Phone interview, retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, Dec. 17, 2014
Email interview, Brookings senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon, Nov. 24, 2014
Email interview, NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, Nov. 24, 2014
Email interview, Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dec. 16, 2014
Obama announces plan to end combat operations this year
President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend to thank the American troops stationed there. He also told them that "by the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over."
In an announcement from the White House Rose Garden on May 27, Obama affirmed his plan to formally conclude the combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"This year we will bring America's longest war to a responsible end," he said.
That would fulfill the campaign pledge that Obama made on the trail during his 2012 re-election campaign.
It doesn't mean, however, that the United States will be pulling out of the country completely. There are currently 32,000 troops in Afghanistan; military commanders recommend leaving 10,000 troops after the end of combat operations.
Obama laid out a timeline for withdrawing troops over the next two years. By the beginning of 2015, about 9,800 troops would be stationed around Afghanistan. That number will reduce by half over the following year, and by the end of 2016, the military will serve as a normal embassy presence in Kabul, similar to what is now in Iraq.
"Our objectives are clear," said Obama. "Disrupting threats posed by al-Qaida, supporting Afghan security forces, and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own."
There's a hurdle to cross, though: This withdrawal schedule will only occur if Obama and Afghanistan's new president -- to be elected in two weeks -- sign a bilateral agreement allowing for transition process.
Obama visited Afghanistan in 2012, when he was unsuccessful in reaching a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama is now hoping he can work with a new president following the election on June 14. The two final candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, have both indicated they would promptly sign the agreement after taking office.
If the bilateral security agreement is not signed, all U.S. troops would abruptly leave at the end of this year, which could mean a chaotic transition for Afghan security forces.
On May 28, Obama delivered the commencement address at West Point military academy where he placed his plans for Afghanistan in the context of broader foreign policy.
Sustaining the progress made in Afghanistan depends on the ability of Afghans to independently defend themselves, said Obama.
Obama also called on Congress to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion. The fund will pay for efforts to train and equip more partner countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia so they can also defend themselves against terrorism.
Overall, Obama has said he intends to keep his promise to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014. But the final outcome is contingent on the signing of a new security agreement. We're waiting to see the results of Obama's plans before we issue a final rating, so we leave this promise at In the Works.
New York Times, Obama Makes Surprise Trip to Afghanistan, May 25, 2014
The White House, Remarks by the President to the Troops at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, May 25, 2014
The White House, Statement by the President on Afghanistan, May 27, 2014
CNN, Obama to Cut Troops, says Afghanistan 'will not be a perfect place,' May 27, 2014
The White House, Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address, Feb. 12, 2013
New York Times, U.S. Troops to Leave Afghanistan by End of 2016, May 27, 2014
The Guardian, Hamid Karzai Refuses to Sign US-Afghan Security Pact, Nov. 24, 2013
Associated Press, Afghan Candidates Differ in Style Not Substance, May 15, 2014
The White House, Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, May 28, 2014
Making plans for Afghanistan exit at the end of 2014
There was a lot of talk of 2014 when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Afghanistan recently. That's the date President Barack Obama has set for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
But much remains to be worked out. The United States and Afghanistan intend to reach an agreement on how many troops would remain, to train the Afghan military and for counterterrorism. Meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan go to the polls in April 2014 to elect a new president.
At a press conference in Kabul with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on March 25, Kerry acknowledged there was much to be done but said things were heading in the right direction
"I believe that the security of Afghanistan is growing and will grow over the course of the next two years, and I have confidence that in the bilateral security agreement we will have a full understanding of exactly how that will occur,” Kerry said.
Later in his trip, Kerry heard Afghan women entrepreneurs who said they feared the U.S. withdrawal would bring more instability and corruption for their country, according to a report from the New York Times.
Obama has said some troops will remain in 2015 and afterwards, but he hasn't set a number. In his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Obama said he intended to bring 34,000 troops back home over the next year.
"While it is too soon to make decisions about the number of forces that could remain in Afghanistan after 2014, any presence would be at the invitation of the Afghan Government and focused on two distinct missions: training, advising and equipping Afghan forces, and continued counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda and their affiliates,” Obama said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also emphasized the 2014 deadline in conversations with troops on March 8 in a visit to Afghanistan.
"We are still at war, and many of you will continue to experience the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle,” Hagel said. "But the goal we have established – to have Afghans assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014 – is clear and achievable.”
Obama and his administration are warning that the next two years are difficult. But as far as messaging, they're clearly emphasizing the 2014 deadline. We rate this promise In the Works.
U.S. State Department, Remarks With President Hamid Karzai After Their Meeting, March 25, 2013
The White House, Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address, Feb. 12, 2013
U.S. Defense Department, Secretary Issues Message to ISAF Personnel During First Official Trip to Afghanistan, March 8, 2013
New York Times, Kerry Hears Afghan Fears From Women in Business, March 26, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations, Why is the United States still in Afghanistan?, accessed March 29, 2013
The Weekly Standard, A better Afghanistan will require a better president, by Max Boot, April 1, 2013