KABUL — President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. plans to keep almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan past the end of the year brought relief to Afghans worried a full withdrawal would leave a security vacuum.
But questions remain about what the post-combat mission in this still-active war zone will look like.
The long wait for Obama’s announcement caused unease in a nation where, nearly 13 years after the U.S. military invasion that ousted the ruling Taliban, a war is still raging in parts of the country, and Afghan troops still rely on U.S. intelligence and technology to fight an entrenched insurgency.
“This will remove a sense of drift from U.S. military policy in Afghanistan and it will bring a sense of reassurement to pro-government enclaves in the country that Americans won’t abandon them after 2014,” said Graeme Smith, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Obama announced the U.S. is willing to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after all combat troops withdraw at the end of December. That number would be drawn down by half during 2015, with all but embassy security teams would leave by the end of 2016. That’s close to what U.S. military commanders had requested.
In a statement released Wednesday, the commander of both U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, praised the decision.
“The people of Afghanistan and their government should be reassured with this commitment to their continued progress and development,” Dunford said. “I see this as reinforcing success.”
If, as expected, other NATO nations also make troop commitments beyond this year, the residual force is likely to be higher than the 8,000- to 12,000-troop force many experts thought would be left in the country. There are currently more than 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, far below the 100,000 that were in the country at the height of the war.
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani welcomed the announcement, which gives Afghans “peace of mind,” his spokesman, Hamidullah Farouki, said.
“We now understand they are not going to leave us alone,” Farouki said.
The troop commitment shows that the U.S. and Afghanistan still have mutual interests in a continued mission, said Afghan military analyst and retired Brig. Gen. Naqibullah, who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name.
“I think with the current situation, they need us and we need them,” he said. “Everyone knows that the fight against terrorism is not finished.”
But the situation in Afghanistan was only one factor in determining the final plans, said Michael Keating, a senior fellow with the U.K.-based Chatham House.
The proposed plan signals a compromise between the U.S. military’s assessment of what is necessary in Afghanistan, and Obama’s desire to reshape American foreign policy, Keating said.
“[Obama’s] speech makes much more sense in terms of American domestic politics than it does in terms of what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said. “You’ve got an insurgency that’s as entrenched as ever but a president that wants to reorient American foreign policy.”
Figuring out the right balance between those two imperatives may have played a part in delaying the announcement of solid troop figures, Keating added. He said the American plans may have been delayed even further had the first round of the Afghan presidential elections not gone so well, setting up two final candidates who both say they will sign the troop agreement.
Obama has said there will be no troops without a long-sought security agreement with Kabul that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign.
But Ghani, a former finance minister, and his opponent in a presidential runoff scheduled for June 14, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, both have said they would sign the agreement soon after taking office.
The U.S. troop commitment may also allay some concerns of donor nations whose aid is crucial to a country that relies almost entirely on foreign money to fund its government and military. Afghanistan’s economy has been feeling the pinch in the past year, as jobs with foreign organizations dry up and property values fall ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops and the contracting services that supported them.
“The presence of the foreign forces is needed because you’ve already seen business decrease in the past two years,” said Mohammad Nabi, a 42-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul.
There is a risk, as well, to keeping foreign forces in the country: the Taliban’s prevailing message has always been that their fight is justified by what they describe as an unjust foreign occupation, and the insurgents quickly seized on Obama’s announcement to proclaim their fight will continue.
“As long as the invasion continues on our Islamic soil, our religion and faith tells us to wage jihad,” said a Taliban statement sent to members of the media.
And questions about the new mission remain, such as what it will look like. Obama did signal in his speech that the controversial nation-building phase of the war in Afghanstan is largely over.
“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” he said. “The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”
And, while Obama’s announcement was a relief to many, there is still the more crucial question of whether the international community is willing to keep funding the Afghan National Security Forces at their current level of roughly 350,000 troops, Smith, of the International Crisis Group, said. The funding plan agreed upon at the 2012 Chicago Summit, assuming that the insurgency would be significantly weakened, called for the ANSF to shrink by about a third by 2017.
That turned out to be a flawed assumption — if anything, the insurgency has only gained strength since that summit. In September, NATO nations will gather for a summit in the United Kingdom in part to discuss the post-2014 security plan for a country on which the 65-year-old military alliance has staked its reputation.
“They’re going to have to figure out how to find a few extra billion dollars to keep the Afghan security forces at their current levels,” Smith said. Cutting the force “is just not tenable right now; if you cut 130,000 Afghan security forces with the situation like it is today, you’re going to have a big problem.”
Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Josh Smith contributed to this report