US President Barack Obama announces the military troop pullout from Afghanistan on Tuesday. The administration's plan is to keep a contingency force of 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks during a surprise visit with US troops at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, in Afghanistan on Sunday. / Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The US military presence in Afghanistan will fall to about 9,800 troops by January, a sharp decline from the 32,000 US uniformed personnel in country, US President Barack Obama announced Tuesday at the White House.
The reduction is part of a plan to have all US and NATO troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, when a small handful of uniformed personnel will remain at the US Embassy in Kabul to work on foreign military sales and military-to-military contracts.
There are 51,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is expected that NATO will also keep about 2,000 troops in country past 2014, but administration officials have said that final numbers, and what the force structure will look like, won’t be clear until top-level NATO meetings in June.
Both Obama and several senior administration officials said that withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan would allow the United States to use those military resources elsewhere, specifically in North Africa, where al-Qaida splinter groups have become more active. The president plans to outline this strategy on Wednesday at the commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.
“We’re not looking at Afghanistan in isolation, we’re looking at this in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the way to the Sahel,” said one senior administration official, adding that the withdrawal of troops and equipment will ensure that the US has the “resources to allocate across the region.”
While the combat mission will officially be over at the end of this year, those 9,800 troops will focus narrowly on two central missions after 2014 — training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against what remains of al-Qaida in the country.
One senior administration official said the counterterrorism mission will be focused “against the remnants of al-Qaida,” but no mention was made of the Taliban or other insurgent groups, who have taken a much greater role in battling NATO and Afghan forces for influence and territory over the past 13 years of combat.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford — commander of all NATO troops in Afghanistan — said that while the power of al-Qaida in Afghanistan has largely been blunted, “extremist networks have now expanded in the country,” and “increased cooperation and coordination can be seen between al-Qaida and other extremists like the Haqqani Network, Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
Meanwhile, his assessment was that the Taliban insurgency does not represent “an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan or to the Afghan security forces.”
The exclusion of the Taliban from administration statements Tuesday may reflect Dunford’s assessment, along with the fact that the Taliban is not a globally-focused organization and as such poses no risk to Americans outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Dunford has consistently advocated for 8,000 to 12,000 American troops backed by 2,000 forces from NATO allies to remain in country past 2014, so the White House announcement will split the difference.
None of this is set in stone, however.
“We will only sustain a military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA]” the administration official said, adding that “assuming a BSA is signed, at the beginning of 2015, we will have 9,800 US service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we would reduce that presence by roughly half, consolidating US troops in Kabul and on Bagram Air Field. 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.”
Both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — candidates in the running to replace Afghan President Hamid Karzai — have said they would sign the BSA upon taking office.
California Rep. Buck McKeon, the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee and longtime critic of the administration’s public timetables for withdrawal, issued a statement saying that pulling out by the end of 2016 “doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically.”
While the administration touted its Afghan strategy as being akin to the orderly withdrawal from Iraq, McKeon blasted the plan as replicating the president’s “mistakes in Iraq where he abandoned the region to chaos.” ■