TIME Foreign Policy

Why Obama Is Leaving 10,000 Troops in Afghanistan

Jake Beaudoin, a U.S. Army Private of 82nd Airborne Division, takes cover during a controlled detonation to clear an area for setting up a check point in Zahri district of Kandahar province
Shamil Zhumatov—Reuters

A clean break like the U.S. made from Iraq is tempting. But it's not a risk Obama is ready to take—yet

By choosing to leave almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the formal end of American combat operations later this year, President Barack Obama made a choice between two imperatives.

One was to make a clean break with a war that has lasted more than 12 years, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, with inconclusive results. Obama was happy to take that path in Iraq, from which he pulled out the last U.S. soldier in December 2011. (There’s some dispute as to whether Obama preferred to leave a small residual force but was denied by the Iraqi government; suffice to say Obama wasn’t hell-bent on staying.)

The other imperative was to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become like a horror movie killer who springs up the moment the you think he’s dead and turn your back. Afghanistan’s security forces probably aren’t yet ready to defend their government against the Taliban, a weakened but hardly defeated enemy. A residual American force can aid the Afghans with everything from intelligence to logistics to medical assistance. (The Afghans have paltry Medevac capabilities, for instance—hardly a morale booster for their troops.) Obama may rightfully doubt that maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. forces can remake Afghanistan into a tidy success story. But neither does he want to preside over a slide back into a 1990s-style civil war.

That civil war, of course, produced a Taliban government which harbored al-Qaeda and made the Sept, 11, 2001 terror attacks possible—the reason we invaded Afghanistan in the first place. Obama never promised to make Afghanistan a functioning democracy, or even to defeat the Taliban. His repeated vow has been to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda” in the region and prevent the terror group’s ability to threaten the U.S. and its allies. A residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will be crucial to achieving that goal.

Even with most al-Qaeda figures killed or driven from the country, a senior U.S. official told TIME in December, “it’s likely there would be some residual al-Qaeda or or related affiliates that persist beyond [the end of 2014]. And we would retain the requirement to disrupt any threats. The preferred way for us to do that is in a partnership with the Afghans.”

Americans are much more able to conduct counterterrorism operations than the Afghan security forces. Perhaps just as important, the residual U.S. troops will be right across the border from Pakistan’s notorious tribal areas, where the most dangerous al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives are still based. Since the U.S. has no military presence in Pakistan, the ability to continue drone missions from Afghanistan will be enormously valuable.

A continued U.S. presence will also have symbolic and diplomatic value, as the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, told TIME in February. At a moment when there was talk of a residual force numbering in the very low thousands—or even none at all, given that Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a post-2014 military agreement with the U.S. (his successor is expected to do so)—Crocker said a robust American force was a valuable way of “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run” in a region that America has abandoned before.

But wait: Obama is also announcing that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. That would seem to undermine the message of support and engagement—and risk allowing al-Qaeda and the Taliban to bide their time for just a bit longer, right?

Possibly. But it’s also possible that that America’s troop presence could be extended by a future agreement in the final days of Obama’s term, especially if the Afghan government feels vulnerable and Washington sees signs of a local al-Qaeda resurgence.

An Iraq-style clean break from Afghanistan may be tempting. But recent history suggests it’s risky.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Says ‘Time to Turn The Page’ on Afghanistan War

President Obama Announces Plan For Pullout From Afghanistan By End Of 2016
President Barack Obama speaks about the military troop pullout from Afghanistan at the White House on May 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong—Getty Images

The troops staying will focus on counterterrorism and training. A complete withdrawal will be completed in 2016, 15 years after the war began.

Updated 3:14 p.m. E.T.

President Barack Obama announced plans Tuesday to leave a force of 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after this year and withdraw all American troops by the end of 2016, as he winds down the nation’s longest war.

“The bottom line is, it’s time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said at the White House.

Coming on the heels of a Memorial Day weekend trip to visit troops in Afghanistan, and a day before a major foreign policy address at West Point, Obama’s announcement didn’t come as a surprise. Pentagon officials had recommended to the President either a force of this size or a full withdrawal at the end of the year.

“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said, hinting at his broader foreign policy philosophy set to be outlined Wednesday. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century, not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.

The remaining forces will have a pared back mission focused on counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide legal protections for U.S. troops and is viewed as a prerequisite for any lingering American troop presence, but both of the candidates to replace him have pledged to sign the agreement if they take office.

“We have struck significant blows against al-Qaeda’s leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden, and we have prevented Afghanistan from being used for attacks against our homeland,” Obama said. “Now we’re finishing the job we started.”

Addressing critics who assert the U.S. withdrawal timetable is too aggressive, Obama said, “We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not the U.S.’s responsibility to make it one.”

Speaking from the Rose Garden, Obama told reporters that U.S. troops won’t stay in the country without a Bilateral Security Agreement. On a call with reporters, a senior administration official defended Obama’s decision to announce a firm timeline for withdrawal, saying it is important to set a schedule for troop drawdowns for planning with allies and the Afghan government.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, Obama said that, “By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end.”

Ending the U.S. troop presence would fulfill Obama’s pledge when he took office to end the war. In 2009, he ordered a 30,000 troop “surge” to help bring stability to the war-torn country, while enacting a plan to gradually turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces. As of this month there are roughly 32,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.


White House Accidentally Reveals Name of CIA Chief in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to troops at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Afghanistan, during an unannounced visit, May 25, 2014.
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to troops at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Afghanistan, during an unannounced visit, May 25, 2014. Evan Vucci—AP

The White House issued a corrected list of officials, without the name of the CIA officer, but only after the initial list had been distributed to more than 6,000 people

The White House inadvertently revealed the name of the top CIA officer in Afghanistan when it provided reporters with a list of officials participating in President Barack Obama’s surprise Memorial weekend visit to troops.

In a press list of 15 officials circulated to up to 6,000 recipients, including TIME reporters, one name appeared next to the title Chief of Station, the title of the top CIA officer in a country. The White House, which received the list from military officials, soon realized the mistake and issued a revised copy without the name.

TIME is withholding his name after Obama officials cautioned The Washington Post, which first reported on the snafu, that the officer and his family could be at risk if his name were published. Given the officer’s prominent role, his identity is probably known by the top echelons of the Afghan government, so it’s still unclear if he will be pulled out of the country, the Post reports.

The CIA and the White House declined to comment to the Washington Post.


TIME White House

Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to troops at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Afghanistan, during an unannounced visit, May 25, 2014.
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to troops at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Afghanistan, during an unannounced visit, May 25, 2014. Evan Vucci—AP

The President touched down in Afghanistan on Sunday on his first visit to the country in two years, to meet with troops, civilians and military leaders to discuss the country's future

President Barack Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Sunday — his first visit to Afghanistan in two years and his fourth trip as President overall — and pledged a “responsible end” to the war there by the end of 2014.

During the visit, Obama spoke to troops, visited a base hospital and met with military officials to discuss troop presence in Afghanistan as the country’s longest war comes to a close. Country singer Brad Paisley flew with Obama on Air Force One to perform for the troops.

“I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d stop by,” Obama said. “I’m here on a single mission and that’s to say thank you for your extraordinary service … I’m also here representing 300 million Americans who want to say thank you as well.”

The President called it a “pivotal moment” for the war in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces preparing to end their combat role by the end of the year as Afghan forces take the lead in securing the country’s safety. “By the end of this year the transition will be complete … and our combat mission will be over,” said Obama, to some of the loudest applause of the speech. “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”

He ended his remarks with a promise to shake every hand in the room. “Though I may not be able to take a selfie with everybody,” he added.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, said the Obama Administration felt the Memorial Day weekend trip was “an opportunity for the President to thank American troops and civilians for their service.”

There are no meetings scheduled with Afghanistan’s outgoing President Hamid Karzai or either of the leading candidates in the country’s ongoing presidential election. A White House official said the Administration had invited Karzai to attend the President’s visit, but it hadn’t worked out due to the last-minute timing. “The President will likely be speaking by phone with President Karzai in the days to come, and also looks forward to working with Afghanistan’s next President after the election is complete,” said the official.

Afghanistan’s two runoff presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, have both said they would support a bilateral agreement allowing some U.S. soldiers to stay — an agreement Karzai opposes. Obama said on Sunday he was “hopeful” he would be able to sign an agreement with Afghanistan’s next President that would keep a limited military presence there after 2014.

“We want to make sure Afghanistan can never be used ever again to launch an attack against our country,” he said.

— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller


Pictures of the Week: May 16 – May 23

From the public opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to unprecedented flooding in Bosnia and Serbia, from student protests in Kenya and a traveling panda, TIME presents the best photos of the week.

TIME intelligence

WikiLeaks Claims Afghanistan Under NSA Surveillance

The secret-spilling group says Afghanistan is the country The Intercept declined to name out of concern that doing so could stoke violence

The National Security Agency records every cell phone call in Afghanistan, claims the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which named the country despite the fact that other news organizations did not out of concern that doing so could lead to violence.

The Intercept, a media organization founded by journalists with access to classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reported Monday that the NSA records all cell phone calls in the Bahamas and one unnamed country. The Intercept chose not to release the name of the country, the outlet said in its report, due to “credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence.” WikiLeaks responded to The Intercept’s report by criticizing the decision to redact the country’s name and said it would do so itself 72 hours later.

That threat led many to wonder if it meant WikiLeaks has obtained access to documents leaked by Snowden or if someone with access to the documents gave someone at WikiLeaks the name of the country in question. As the leak site Cryptome noted earlier, it may be that WikiLeaks simply believes that the mystery country is Afghanistan given the already-public information available.

An earlier report on the documents from The Washington Post did not name any of the countries involved.

TIME Foreign Policy

A General Writes the First After-Action Report on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Why We Lost

Enduring Freedom
Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, left, briefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on progress in Afghanistan in 2012. D. Myles Cullen

After 35 years in uniform, retired three-star says he will explain where U.S. war strategy failed

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book sparked a firestorm upon its release in January, although you would never have predicted it by its humdrum title: Duty. But recently retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who played key roles in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 35-year career, wasn’t coy when it came time to titling his upcoming book Why We Lost.

It’s a jaw-dropping phrase in a political-military world given to mealy-mouthed assessments of military progress in the two wars the U.S. has fought since 9/11. Its assertion calls into question the wars’ costs — 6,800 U.S. troops, untold enemy and civilian dead, and a $2 trillion, and rising, bill for U.S. taxpayers. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing the book Nov. 11. Its publication date is exactly two years after Bolger declared, during a Veterans Day ceremony in Afghanistan, that “our nations count on us, and we’ll deliver.”

Apparently not.

“By next Memorial Day, who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population —’Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: we ran out of energy.”

The military fumbled the ball by not making clear how long it would take to prevail in both nations. “Once you get past that initial knockout shot, and decide you’re going to stay awhile, you’d better define ‘a while,’ because in counter-insurgency you’re talking decades,” Bolger says. “Neither [the Bush nor the Obama] Administration was going to do that, yet I was in a military that was planning for deployments forever, basically. An all-volunteer force made it easy to commit the military to a long-term operation because they were volunteers.”

Bolger_WHYWELOST_cvr_lo-resThe nation and its military would have been far smarter to invade, topple the governments they didn’t like, and get out. “Both wars were won, and we didn’t know enough to go home” after about six months, Bolger argues. “It would have been messy and unpleasant, and our allies would have pissed and moaned, because limited wars by their nature have limited, unpalatable results. But what result would have been better — that, or this?”

The mindset persists. “The senior guys say, ‘Well, it’s not lost yet — we may still pull it out’,” Bolger said, as Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, returned from a NATO session in Brussels where Afghanistan was a topic. “I don’t give military advice to the Taliban,” Dempsey told Jim Garamone of the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service. “But if I were giving them advice, I’d tell them their negotiating position is not going to improve, it’s going to erode.”

There was a belief in some quarters of the U.S. government that Washington and its allies were going to remake that troubled part of the world. “Don’t be so arrogant and think you’re going to reshape the Middle East,” Bolger says. “We’ve basically installed authoritarian dictators.” The U.S. wanted to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq post-2011 (the two sides couldn’t agree on legal protections for U.S. troops, so none remain) and a similar sized force is being debated for Afghanistan once the U.S. combat role formally ends at the end of 2014. “You could have gone to that plan in 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 or ’04 in Iraq, and you wouldn’t have had an outcome much worse than what we’ve had,” Bolger says.

“They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out — basically like Desert Storm,” he adds, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait after an air campaign and 100-hour ground war. The U.S. wasn’t up to perpetual war, even post-9/11. “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”

Bolger — “rhymes with soldier,” he likes to say — is no disgruntled grunt. He retired from the Army last year after commanding the training of Iraqi forces in 2005-06, running the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 2009-10, and leading the training of Afghan forces in 2011-13. A graduate of the Citadel, he has a master’s and doctorate in history from the University of Chicago, and wrote frequently on military history while in uniform. He helped develop strategy in both campaigns and took time to pick up a rifle to accompany his troops in the field. “I am glad to see someone of his caliber tackling this subject,” military author Tom Ricks posted on his blog. In 2012, Defense News pegged Bolger at #40 in the list of the nation’s 100 most influential people in defense, two steps higher than “Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Atlantic Council chairman.”

Bolger said his views on the wars grew more sour during his three tours. “My guilt is not having earlier figured out what was going wrong, and making a more forceful case and working with my peer generals to make a better military recommendation,” he says. “What eats at me the most is the 80 dead people I had in my command over my three tours, that eats at me a hell of a lot.”

What would he tell the families of the fallen? “I’d tell the families we need to unscrew ourselves and make sure we don’t do this again,” Bolger says. “What we didn’t do was use their precious service in the best way.” Their bravery and pluck won key victories, and he hopes his book will “make this sacrifice worth it.” Bolger also has a personal reason for writing: his son has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It is his own decision; he’s an adult,” his father says. The retired general is now teaching military history at North Carolina State University.

Bolger recently wondered when the U.S. military was going to conduct a formal and traditional After-Action Report (AAR) on its performance in the two wars. “Some say the Iraq surge of 2007 proved counterinsurgency tactics worked. Others point out that today’s Iraq is a sectarian mess, undermining that belief. As for the Afghan surge of 2010-11, well, who knows? We cannot even say, or will not even say, who won these campaigns. It sure does not seem to be us,” Bolger wrote in the February issue in Signals, the journal of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.

Such studies, long a part of military learning, have lessons for both the past and the future. “You might think such an assessment might be rather useful as we prepare to carve up and rearrange our armed forces to face today’s uncertain world. Facts offer a better starting point than hunches, emotions and ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ What did we learn from the current war? We owe it to the citizens we serve, and we certainly owe it to the men and women we have lost. We are past due for a long, hard look.”

Bolger repeated the question Thursday. “Where is the AAR?” he asked. Apparently, he got tired of waiting. “My book,” he says wistfully, “is going to be the first one.”

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Presidential Elections Headed for a Runoff

Frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah, a former leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, received 45% of the vote, missing the majority marker necessary for an outright win. He'll face Ashraf Ghani on June 14.

Afghanistan’s election commission announced Friday the long-awaited results of last month’s presidential vote, slightly tweaking the final numbers but still sending the vote to a two-candidate runoff.

Frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah, a former leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, received 45% of the vote, missing the majority marker necessary for an outright win, the Independent Election Commission said. He’ll face Ashraf Ghani, who received 31.6% of the vote, in a June 14 decision.

More than seven million Afghans went to the polls last month in the country’s election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since 2001. Election day was mostly peaceful despite Taliban threats to disrupt the vote. It’s unclear, however, if the runoff elections will draw the same turnout. The runoff will take place during the height of the country’s so-called “fighting season,” during which insurgent attacks typically spike.

Both candidates have said they will sign a security deal with the U.S. to allow some American troops to stay beyond 2014, which Karzai has refused to do. They have also both said they are open to a peace deal with the Taliban.

The results of the runoff are expected to be announced July 22.

[New York Times]


British Charity Sees Rise in Afghanistan Vets Seeking Mental Health Help

A U.K. veterans mental health charity reported a 57% increase over one year in Afghanistan veterans seeking support

The number of British veterans of the war in Afghanistan seeking help for mental health issues increased sharply from 2012 to 2013, a charity group said Monday, warning that need would continue to rise as the country ends its involvement in the war.

Combat Stress, a U.K. veterans mental health charity, said the number of veterans seeking its help went up 57% in the course of a year. The group received referrals for 358 veterans last year, compared to 228 in 2012. Its caseload now includes more than 660 veterans. The increase is linked to the withdrawal of British troops in Afghanistan from all but two bases in Helmand province.

The charity said it found that veterans wait an average of 13 years after serving before seeking help, but the average time has now fallen to 18 months for Afghanistan veterans. Combat Stress also reported that their total caseload of 5,400 veterans across the country was the highest number in its 95-year history.

“We have had great support from the Government and the public over recent years and we simply could not operate without the generosity we have experienced, ” said Commodore Andrew Cameron, chief executive of Combat Stress. “We cannot allow the ex-Service men and women who suffer from the invisible injuries of war to go unnoticed and untreated.”

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Gears Up for Cricket World Cup Glory

Afghanistan's cricket team is on the rise following qualification for the World Cup last October

Afghanistan’s fairytale-like rise from the fifth division of world cricket in 2008 to qualifying for next year’s World Cup has been hailed as one of the sport’s biggest-ever success stories.

“I hope the World Cup is not a make-or-break for Afghanistan,” Rashid Latif, a coach with the Afghan team who was formerly a skipper on Pakistan’s team, said. “Their real cricket will start after the World Cup.”

Latif told AFP that the challenges the Afghan players had to face in their own lives meant they had shown admirable stamina when facing the pressure of the game.

“They are mentally tough and well built, too. As a coach I came to teach, but I have learned from them,” he said.

Watch the video above for more.

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