The US will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2016 after maintaining a military presence in the country for the next two years, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday.
Mr Obama said that 9,800 US troops would likely remain in the country in 2015, after the conclusion of the formal Nato combat operation at the end of this year. The US force would then be cut in half at the end of 2015, with all the troops withdrawing at the end of 2016.
“It is 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,” he said. “Americans have learned that it is harder to end wars than to begin them, yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.” There are currently 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
Mr Obama has been under heavy pressure from the Pentagon to maintain some sort of force in the country after 2014 to help with training the Afghan military and to conduct counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban. However, the president has also made ending the war one of his signature themes.
In the end, Mr Obama split the difference, giving the Pentagon another two years but calling for a complete withdrawal by the end of his term in office. He acknowledged that Afghanistan could become more unstable once the US pulls out for good.
“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place and it is not American’s responsibility to make it one,” said Mr Obama, who is expected to make a major speech on Wednesday at West Point answering the mounting criticism that his foreign policy lacks direction. Earlier a senior administration official said that the US “never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan against the Taliban”.
The announcement of the new troop plans follows a fierce political dispute with President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign an agreement allowing US troops to remain in the country past the end of this year, despite strong political support in Afghanistan for the idea.
Mr Obama, who made a surprise trip to Afghanistan at the weekend, said the new mission was still dependent on the government signing a so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, however both politicians involved in the run-off to be the next president – Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - have said they support the agreement.
Republicans immediately criticised Mr Obama’s decision to set a timeline on pulling out all the troops – just as he did in his 2009 speech at West Point which outlined a “surge” of troops into Afghanistan but which also gave dates for when they would start to leave.
“Holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically,” said Buck McKeon, the Republican chair of the House armed services committee. “We are in Afghanistan because it was the spawning ground of al-Qaeda and the devastating attack on American soil. Those threats still exist.”
Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and advisor to the Obama re-election campaign, said the new timeline “could make sense if everything goes exceptionally well, but not if conditions on the ground are more problematic”. She said the administration should retain some flexibility in how it implemented the plan.
However, not only is public opinion in the US sceptical about a long-term presence in Afghanistan, but political support for the sort of aid that the country receives from the US has been badly dented by the long, drawn-out argument with Mr Karzai.
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