Obama Orders 9,800 Troops to Remain in Afghanistan, With All Out by 2016

This story has been updated.

President Obama announced Tuesday that he will keep 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 for "two narrow missions" - training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda - but will draw all of them down by the time he prepares to leave office at the end of 2016.

The announcement ends months of speculation about what the commander-in-chief would do in Afghanistan, where about 32,000 American troops remain in the 13th year of what has become a deeply unpopular war. On Wednesday, Obama - who just returned from his first trip to Afghanistan in two years -- will give what aides describe as a major speech at West Point outlining his broader foreign policy views as well as his specific policies on Syria, Afghanistan, and other nations.

But Obama's decision to announce a timeline for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that squares with his own last two years in office led several critics to charge that a political agenda was driving a major policy decision.

"To arbitrarily end this with a date that is set by a domestic American political timetable ignores the realities on the ground and ignores the sacrifices our men and women have made in Afghanistan," said Marc Chretien, who most recently served as the chief political adviser to Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan until early last year.

Frustrated with the refusal of the sitting Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a required security agreement to allow troops to remain in Afghanistan, the White House had publicly toyed with the idea of removing all troops by the end of this year. That so-called "zero option" was fiercely opposed by top military commanders, who said it risked reversing recent security gains.

But with the two finalists in Afghanistan's recent presidential elections indicating that they were amenable to signing what's called a bilateral security agreement, or BSA, the White House decided to side with senior military officials who argued that a small troop presence would help buoy the progress made by the Afghan security forces over the last few years. White House aides said Obama's troop decision hinged on the winning candidate signing the BSA.

Obama's decision hands a victory to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top Pentagon officials.

Gen. Joe Dunford, the top Afghanistan war commander, is thought to have argued for a force of at least 10,000 troops or as many as 15,000 that could conduct the necessary train-and-advise mission along with counter-terrorism operations. Most military officers argue against publicly stating timelines for withdrawal because of a belief that encourages their enemies and gives them less wriggle room to respond to changing conditions on the ground. In the run-up to the announcement, some media reports had suggested Obama was planning to leave as few as 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. In agreeing to the much larger force, Obama effectively agreed to the military's wish list for the next years of the war.

The troop decision also marked a win for the leaders of the nation's intelligence community, who have long warned that a full withdrawal of America's conventional military forces would make it far more difficult for paramilitary operatives from the CIA to mount counter terrorism operations with Navy SEALs and other elite American commandos. With the U.S. combat role rapidly shrinking, the paramilitary operatives and Special Operations personnel are meant to assume the lead role in the hunt for any residual al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Asked whether U.S. spy agencies pushed for keeping American troops in Afghanistan in order to conduct intelligence and counterterrorism missions, a U.S. intelligence official said the intelligence community "made its views known, and is comfortable with the outcome of the policy process. "

Still, Obama didn't give the Pentagon or the intelligence community all they wanted. Obama, who has long been ambivalent about the Afghanistan war despite having campaigned to reverse its decline in 2008, will only leave those forces there for a specific period of time. Under the terms of his current plan, half of the 9,800 troops will leave in 2015, with the remaining forces consolidated to the large U.S. bases in Kabul and at the Bagram Air Base. By the end of 2016, according to the White House, virtually all of those troops will return home. The Afghanistan they leave behind, Obama said, will optimal.  

"We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one," Obama said. "The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."

NATO forces from more than a dozen or so countries who have been awaiting the president's decision for months will likely remain in Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces. If the U.S. is to leave approximately 10,000 through 2015, it is likely NATO's contribution will be proportionate - possibly between 2,000 and 3,000 troops for the same period for a total of about 13,000 troops.

Hagel said in statement that he "strongly supports" Obama's decision, and Dempsey said through Pentagon officials that his Afghan counterparts welcomed the decision and that it "aligns tasks with resources."

But the news was not met with much enthusiasm from those who believe Obama should be more forceful in his Afghanistan policy. While some believe Obama did the right thing in committing to keep a sizeable force in Afghanistan, the announcement of a specific drawdown over the next two years enraged administration critics.

"Doing the same thing he did in Iraq and expecting different results is the definition of insanity," Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina and a frequent critic of the administration, tweeted Tuesday afternoon before the announcement.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire released a statement saying that Obama's announcing the withdrawal date was a "monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy."

They said, "The president appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq," and went on to say that his decision on Afghanistan would feed a "growing perception" around the world that the U.S. is "unreliable, distracted and unwilling to lead."

Some former administration officials were not thrilled with the new drawdown plans. Michele Flournoy, the former Pentagon policy chief, said the fact that Obama announced his troop commitment now was a positive development because it "stops the narrative that we're going to zero [in Afghanistan]."

Still, she said Obama's specific drawdown timeline could lock the White House - and the next administration - into a course of action it could be harder to undo, even if conditions on the ground begin to dictate a slower drawdown.

"The truth is that nobody knows if this plan is just right, too fast, or too slow," Flournoy, now the head of the Center for a New American Security, said in an interview. It's important, she added, "that we manage the execution of the drawdown in a way that locks in the gains that we've fought and sacrificed for over the last decade."  

Allen, the former Afghanistan war commander until early last year, said he wanted to know more about how the troops would be used and for what purpose, but was especially struck by Obama's withdrawal timeline.

"I am very attentive to a deadline for the training mission at the end of 2016, and will be very interested in understanding this aspect of the announcement," Allen said in an email.

While some believe the president pays little political cost by leaving troops in a war zone to which few Americans are paying attention, others think Obama made a smart political move. And despite Obama laying out a specific drawdown plan over the next two years, there's a good chance the presidential candidates in 2016 could dictate a change in those plans, and more troops could stay, said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. Either a Republican or a Democratic frontrunner could signal that the troops should stay and Obama could turn off the drawdown, Sabato said in an interview, adding that he's done it before.

"Timetables change," he said. "As we've seen."

Shane Harris contributed to this report.


SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


What Do #YesAllWomen and #BringBackOurGirls Have in Common?

Eight thousand miles apart - in Chibok, Nigeria, and Isla Vista, Calif. - violent brands of misogyny have in recent weeks fueled awful acts of violence against women. In Chibok, radical Islamists kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls. Their crime? Attending school. In Isla Vista, a troubled young man went on a shooting spree that left six people dead. His motivation? Sexual rejection and a hatred of women.

Chibok and Isla Vista could not be more different - one is a tiny Nigerian village, the other a California beach town - but they share a feature of modern life both too common and too commonly ignored: terrible violence toward women. But in these two cases, the news hasn't faded from the headlines, in part because the events have sparked two of the most talked about Internet campaigns in recent memory. In the case of the kidnapping, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, a hazy exhortation to the world to take action to rescue the girls, has become a Twitter phenomenon, with First Lady Michelle Obama and a slew of other celebrities joining the campaign. And on the heels of the shooting in Isla Vista, the hashtag #YesAllWomen has exploded online, as women have used the hashtag to describe the everyday sexual harassment women face. (Men died in the Isla Vista shootings as well, but the alleged killer's misogynistic motive, explained in a manifesto posted online, has become the case's focal point.)

Viral Twitter phenomena are a dime a dozen but that two such campaigns within the same month focus on violence toward women is surely a first. What can we learn by comparing the two campaigns?

First, the early numbers indicate #YesAllWomen will probably become bigger than #BringBackOurGirls. During its first three days of existence, #YesAllWomen has already beat #BringBackOurGirls' one-day peak. On Sunday, two days after the shooting, #YesAllWomen appeared in more than 700,000 tweets, beating #BringBackOurGirls' early May peak by about 200,000 tweets. In three days, #YesAllWomen has nearly racked up half as many tweets as #BringBackOurGirls notched during the entire month of May.

The visualization below, which tracks the global spread of #YesAllWomen tells the story and shows how an intense burst of activity in the United States and Europe fueled its spread. 

By contrast, the spread of #BringBackOurGirls was more global in scope and less concentrated inthe Western world. This certainly isn't surprising: The hashtag originated in Nigeria and eventually spread to the Western world.  

Regardless of their reach, campaigns of this nature are often criticized as ephemeral expressions with little real-world impact. Indeed, as seen in the graph above, #BringBackOurGirls has faded from Twitter, yet the schoolgirls remain missing. The campaign may have played a role in galvanizing an international effort to locate them, including helping to build the political pressure that helped persuade the White House to send military advisers to Nigeria, but that effort has so far failed on its most important metric: bringing back the girls. On that score, #YesAllWomen is doing something quite different. The hashtag doesn't present a clear end goal -- and therein lies its power. Depending on your perspective, the hashtag has become a repository of shared experience and empathy. For men, they should serve as a wake-up call. Moreover, hashtag has become a frightening illustration of the social environment that might fuel the kind of misogyny that led Elliot Rodger to brutally kill six people and wound another 13 in what he described as an act of revenge for the scorn heaped upon him by women. All of a sudden, a tweet like this takes on a new urgency:

As a man, reading the tweets has given me a newfound appreciation of the incredible levels of misogyny women face:

For now, tweets with the hashtag #YesAllWomen appear to be concentrated mostly in the Western world, but together with #BringBackOurGirls, the global Internet has during the last month seen an incredible outpouring of support for the full equality of women. Even if the two hashtags fail to end misogyny and free the kidnapped schoolgirls, they surely represent a step in the right direction in advocating for a better reality for women.