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.
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