WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama revealed his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan on Tuesday, saying that a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops will remain there for one year after the end of combat operations in December.
That number will be cut in half at the end of 2015, and reduced at the end of 2016 to a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy.
The plan, despite White House warnings early this year of a possible “zero option,” is largely in line with what the U.S. military had requested. It also is in line with what NATO and other international partners said was necessary for them to retain a presence in Afghanistan.
“We’re finishing the job we started more than 12 years ago, when the United States embarked on a war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks against this country,” Obama said in brief remarks in the Rose Garden.
“It’s time to turn the page” from the conflicts that have dominated U.S. foreign policy for more than a decade, he said of the timetable that would end direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan at the end of his second term in office.
The residual force, based at various locations across Afghanistan in 2015, will include troops to train and advise Afghan security forces and a separate group of Special Operations forces to continue counterterrorism missions against what Obama called “the remnants of al-Qaida.”
Beginning in 2016, about half that force will go home, and the rest will be stationed only in Kabul and at Bagram Air Field north of the capital. At the end of that year, the force will shrink to the size of a regular armed forces assistance group, largely to handle military sales, under the authority of the U.S. ambassador.
Obama said the plan is contingent upon Afghanistan’s new president agreeing to a bilateral security agreement that President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. The two candidates in a runoff election scheduled for June 14, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have said they would sign the accord.
The end of the Afghan war will allow resources to be directed to “the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe,” Obama said.
The administration has said its policies have decimated al-Qaida’s Pakistan-based leadership, even as al-Qaida offshoots have spread across the Middle East and Africa. Obama is expected to outline that reality and his strategy for dealing with it in a speech today at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Afghan deployment decision is close to the recommendation of Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, who had asked for 10,000 to 12,000 troops.
Chief among them was an agreement reached between the administration and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to limit targets to senior al-Qaida figures, none of whom has been located since last year.
At the same time, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from eastern Afghanistan has minimized the need for force protection against other Pakistan-based Afghan groups, such as the Haqqani network, that regularly attacked U.S. installations.
One senior official said the administration anticipates an ongoing, narrow focus against al-Qaida rather than other Afghan groups, such as the Haqqanis, that are fighting for control in their country.
Word of the policy was met with skepticism within the Afghan military.
“Obama said this week that he would leave Afghanistan in a responsible way. Leaving in 2016 is not responsible,” said one Afghan battalion commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A brigade commander noted the Afghan military’s lack of air support and heavy artillery, and said building those capabilities would be “impossible” by 2016 or 2017.