Obama Slows Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Obama Slows Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan
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Violence in Afghanistan and the still-uneven skills of Afghan National Security Forces make conditions too “precarious” to withdraw U.S. troops as rapidly as originally envisioned, President Obama conceded Wednesday.

The president’s announcement to slow the withdrawal to 8,400 troops for the remainder of his term was a compromise from the current level of 9,800, but higher than the 5,500 U.S. troop level once imagined by the end of this year. His advisers recommended the 8,400 number and Obama accepted the proposal, a senior administration official said.

Republican lawmakers have urged Obama to keep in place all of the nearly 10,000 U.S. forces tasked with advising and training the Afghan military and conducting counterterrorism operations. Obama declared the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan concluded in December 2014, although a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that Obama approved “additional authorities” for U.S. commanders to engage in combat offensives, including airstrikes, “in a very limited way.”

For a president who campaigned in 2008 to end wars while arguing the Bush administration “took its eye off” Afghanistan as the central battlefield against al-Qaeda, a sustained U.S. military presence there into 2017 represents a personal disappointment. Obama and senior administration officials spoke Wednesday of lessons learned.

“We've been able to end our major ground war there and bring 90 percent of our troops back home,” Obama said during a White House announcement that included Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“But even as we work for peace, we have to deal with the realities of the world as it is,” the president said. “We can't forget what's at stake in Afghanistan. This is where al-Qaeda is trying to regroup, this is where ISIL continues to try to expand its presence.”

Afghanistan, after years of battling the Taliban, vestiges of al-Qaeda, and extremists allied with the Islamic State, remains a dangerous place. Analysts in the United States and abroad have expressed concerns about a “new spiral of violence” over the last six months in a country where more than a third of the population subsists below the national poverty line.

Eight years ago, Obama debated GOP presidential nominee John McCain, lamenting what he called the “mismanagement” of a war in Iraq waged by President George W. Bush – a campaign against al-Qaeda that he insisted overlooked Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“We have to press the Afghan government to make certain that they are actually working for their people,” Obama argued in 2008. “Number two, we've got to deal with a growing poppy trade that has exploded over the last several years. Number three, we've got to deal with Pakistan, because al-Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan.”

Today’s successes, as measured against all three goals, remain murky at the end of two Obama terms, after more than 2,200 U.S. military fatalities, and in the wake of trillions of dollars invested in Afghanistan by the United States and allies, including members of NATO. Obama will attend a NATO summit in Warsaw this weekend.

Obama and his advisers on Wednesday said they set the 8,400-troops level with the needs of the rickety Afghan government and the challenges posed for the next U.S. president in mind. 

“The decision I'm making today ensures that my successor has a solid foundation for continued progress in Afghanistan as well as the flexibility to address the threat of terrorism as it evolves,” the president said.

Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump has not specified what his Afghanistan policy would be as commander-in-chief. Hillary Clinton, endorsed Tuesday by Obama at a Charlotte, N.C., rally, voted for the war in Iraq but said she never would have diverted attention from Afghanistan after 2001. During her second bid for the White House, she generally echoes the president on foreign policy but has said nothing definitive about Afghanistan during several foreign policy speeches.

Budget considerations to support continued operations in Afghanistan will be discussed with Congress, senior administration officials said, though without specifying how the slower drawdown will impact budget requests.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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