President Obama, prolonging the nation’s now 15-year presence in Afghanistan, declared Tuesday that he will hand over to the next commander in chief a 50% bigger U.S. force there than he had planned. Flanked by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama said he would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan at year’s end, down from his prior target of 5,500. There are now about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It marked the latest retreat from his original goal of bringing the wars he inherited from President George W. Bush to an end on his watch. The vacuum triggered by the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 helped lead to the rise of ISIS, which has forced Obama to order nearly 5,000 troops back into the country. He was under pressure from U.S. military leaders to avoid making the same mistake in Afghanistan.
“We are no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan,” Obama said, as he acknowledged the 38 U.S. military and civilian deaths there over the past 18 months. A total of 2,382 Americans troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan didn’t top 40,000 under Bush, who diverted military resources to the Iraq war beginning in 2003. But as the Iraq war wound down, Obama increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to a peak of nearly 100,000 between 2010 and 2012.
Pentagon officials said the slowdown is needed to keep a resurgent Taliban from taking more Afghan territory from the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul. The insurgency currently occupies at least 20% of the country. Pentagon pessimists see the decision as only pushing Afghanistan’s current instability into the next Administration, but unlikely to result in any substantial change on the ground. The more hopeful among them believe the continued training that the increased U.S. troops will provide could turn the tide against the Taliban.
Obama spoke optimistically Wednesday. “To their credit and in the face of a continued Taliban insurgency and terrorist networks, Afghan forces remain in control of all the major population centers, provincial capitals, major transit routes and most district centers,” he said. “Afghan forces have beaten back attacks and they’ve pushed the Taliban out of some areas.”
But others have a grimmer view of what is happening in Afghanistan. “Over the last six months, both [Afghan] and insurgent casualties have increased, continuing their upward trend from the previous reporting period,” the Defense Department said last month it its congressionally mandated semi-annual progress report. “Increased insurgent fighting in urban areas has also contributed to record-high civilian casualties, primarily caused by insurgent and extremist groups.”
Some outsiders concur. Afghanistan’s National Security Forces are “unprepared to counter the Taliban militants’ summer campaign,” the independent Institute for the Study of War think tank said in April. “Taliban militants seek to degrade the ANSF, discourage foreign presence, and demonstrate the weakness of the unity government … They will achieve these objectives through increased insider attacks, assassination campaigns, and attacks against Western and diplomatic targets in Kabul City and beyond. Taliban militants also seek to gain control of additional territory, for which they have already set conditions over the winter.”
Then there are the stray clues that things are not going well. Despite a U.S. investment of $65 billion in the Afghan military, U.S. Special Operations Command, announced three contracts Wednesday for private-security forces to defend their outposts in Kabul (the country’s most-populated city), Kandahar (2nd most-populated) and Mazar-e-Sharif (4th most-populated). The Pentagon watchdog for Afghanistan released a letter Wednesday highlighting problems with health clinics set up by the U.S. inside the country.
A bipartisan group of senators asked Obama in May to announce his troop-level decision before the NATO summit slated later this week in Warsaw. “We urge you to announce any changes to our current planned force levels ahead of the relevant NATO conferences, giving the strongest consideration to the assessment of your military commanders and to conditions on the ground,” the 10 lawmakers said in a May letter.
One of those signers, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the armed services committee, said he welcomed Obama’s decision, as far as it went. “While I believe conditions on the ground warranted retaining the current force level, the decision to retain 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into next year is certainly preferable to cutting those forces by nearly half,” he said after Obama’s announcement. “That said, when the President himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as ‘precarious,’ it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 U.S. troops by the end of the year.”