Obama: Successor to Inherit Afghanistan Conflict
President Obama announced Thursday that U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan will remain there beyond his term and become the responsibility of the next commander-in-chief in 2017, scuttling his ambitions to end on his watch an unpopular 14-year-old war.
“As your commander-in-chief, I believe this decision is vital,” the president said, speaking directly to the American people from the Roosevelt Room. “I know that many of you have grown weary of this conflict. As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war.”
The White House described Obama’s shift in strategy, announced after months of administration re-evaluation and consultations with the Afghanistan government, as a fulfillment of, not a reversal of, his 2008 campaign pledges to end the war in Iraq while concentrating on al-Qaeda and its remnants in Afghanistan. On Thursday, Obama denied being disappointed that he will bequeath the latter mission to his successor, while also handing off Iraq’s battles with ISIL, also known as ISIS, to the next president.
Obama has harbored ambitions to extricate the U.S. military from both nations as legacy achievements. But in failing to do so, he has begun to defend his rhetorical opposition to “the idea of endless war” for the history books, knowing he will not be in the Oval Office to conclude the painful post-9/11 chapter that continues to cost America dearly.
“I'm not disappointed, because my view has always been: How do we achieve our goals while minimizing the strain and exposure on our men and women in uniform and make sure that we are constantly encouraging and sending a message to the Afghan people this is their country and they've got to defend it?” Obama said. “We're going to be a steady partner for them.”
The president’s top aides, during a conference call with reporters following the announcement, argued that Obama had, in fact, honored his campaign promises to Americans by working during his two terms “to begin to reduce our military presence” in Afghanistan, while protecting the U.S. homeland and the Afghan people. Their emphasis was on strides made, not the Pentagon’s total withdrawal.
The president’s strategy initially called for withdrawing U.S. forces in Afghanistan to reduce the 9,800 currently there before he leaves office. Instead, Obama decided in consultation with the Pentagon and the Afghan government that conditions on the ground remain dangerous enough to keep 5,500 troops into 2017, maintaining a total force close to 10,000 to assist the Afghan military and police while they battle the Taliban, remnants of al-Qaeda and other extremists who seek to “affiliate with ISIL.”
In 2008, Obama did not tell Americans he expected to involve a third U.S. president in the puzzle of protecting U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and the region. He assailed President George W. Bush for invading Iraq and argued the United States instead needed to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to defeat al-Qaeda.
“When I am president of the United States, we will end this war in Iraq and bring our troops home,” then-Sen. Obama said during one of many campaign speeches he gave amid the 2008 Democratic primary contest. He mocked Sen. John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, for predicting the United States would be in Iraq for “a hundred years.”
“We will end this war in Iraq. We will bring our troops home. We will finish the job -- we will finish the job against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Obama said during a speech in January 2008.
White House, Defense Department and State Department officials said the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, which Obama announced had ended in December 2014, will not resume. The continuing mission is one of training and assistance, not combat, they said. More than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
“We're going to continually make adjustments to ensure that we give the best possibilities for success and I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president,” Obama said.
The administration said it consulted members of Congress, NATO allies and was responding to a request for continued assistance from President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan.
“Politics played absolutely no role in the president’s decision-making here,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “The only factor that the president considered in making this decision [was] the core national security interests of the United States.”
Nonetheless, the decision tosses the administration’s worries about Afghanistan, a country the president called “very fragile,” directly into the 2016 presidential campaign, where risks posed by Islamic State fighters and the Taliban are hotly debated inside both parties.
Earnest challenged critics of Obama’s policy while ticking off a list of achievements in Afghanistan since 2009. He also defended the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq -- which critics argue left the door open to the rise of ISIL as a destabilizing regional threat -- noting Iraq’s government at the time would not sign a security agreement that would have permitted U.S. troops to remain.
“The situation that the next president, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, will encounter in Afghanistan is a dramatically improved one, when compared to the situation that President Obama inherited in January of 2009,” Earnest said.
Standing alongside Obama in the White House as he announced his decision was Vice President Joe Biden, who continues to weigh whether to seek the Democratic nomination to succeed Obama. Biden is closely engaged with leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Pentagon’s ongoing assessments of how best to thwart the Taliban’s strength, and to degrade and defeat ISIL.
Biden later in the day was pummeled with reporters’ questions about his pending 2016 decision as he greeted visiting South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the vice president’s residence. Park will meet with Obama Friday.
“I’ll talk to you all about that later,” Biden told journalists who asked if he needed to tell Democrats something definitive soon. “I’ll tell you what, good to see you all,” he deflected.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for her party’s nomination, generally has been supportive of Obama’s foreign policy decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has said her Senate vote to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a mistake. However, she criticized Obama’s reluctance to support and arm Syrian rebels early in the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is now a cauldron of violence involving civil war, Islamic State incursions, fleeing refugees, and military tensions between the United States and Russia, both conducting airstrikes over Syria. Clinton advocates a no-fly zone over Syria that Obama dismisses as an option that must be enforced, is costly for American taxpayers, and poses too many risks.
Many congressional Republicans back Obama’s choice to leave troops in Afghanistan, but criticized his earlier decision to reduce the number of troops there. In large measure they are critical of his overall policy in the region, as are the GOP candidates running for president.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday called it the “right decision” to not go forward with the troop withdrawal, adding Obama should maintain current troop levels until the situation on the ground is more stable.
Speaker John Boehner, whose announced retirement from the House remains in limbo this month as his colleagues hunt for a successor, echoed the sentiment while also criticizing Obama for past statements about withdrawing troops from the nation.
“I’m glad the administration finally admits President Obama’s arbitrary political deadlines are ‘self-defeating,’” Boehner said in a statement. “Campaign promises and partisan agendas should never have been put ahead of the safety of the American people, and the stable, democratic Afghanistan that is critical to our national security interests.”
McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a leading critic of Obama’s Middle East strategy, said he is pleased the president will keep U.S. troops at current levels in Afghanistan. But he said maintaining 5,500 falls far short of what is needed. McCain said that number of troops can help sustain counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, or the mission to help train and assist Afghan forces, but not both.
“At a time when the security situation in key parts of Afghanistan is deteriorating and ISIL is seeking to make in-roads there, it makes no military sense to withdraw U.S. forces,” McCain said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t endorse or criticize Obama’s announcement, saying in a statement that she appreciated him informing the public about the decision.
"Clearly, the President sees a vital security need that requires the continued presence of American troops,” Pelosi said. "I look forward to a high-level briefing on the necessity of these steps when Congress returns to session.”
Another Democrat, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, said he is “extremely troubled” by Obama’s announcement, asserting that the mission in Afghanistan “lacks the clarity that the American people and our brave men and women in uniform deserve.”
RealClearPolitics congressional reporter James Arkin contributed to this report.