WASHINGTON — Months after the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told lawmakers that 10,000 American troops were needed to complete the mission there, President Barack Obama on Tuesday said there will be 9,800 in country at the start of 2015, half that at the end of 2015, and a “normal” Embassy presence at the end of 2016, just weeks before his presidency ends.
The projected force levels are contingent upon the Afghan government signing the Bilateral Security Agreement that has been negotiated. The Obama administration has said that if the BSA isn’t inked, all American troops will be withdrawn by the end of this year. The BSA provides legal protections for U.S. military personnel operating in country.
The two Afghan presidential candidates involved in the nation’s runoff election have said that they will sign the agreement if they are elected.
There are approximately 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan today, down from a peak of about 100,000 that was reached following the troop surge that Obama initiated a few months after taking office.
Obama said the post-2014 mission would be narrowly focused on training Afghan National Security Forces and supporting counterterrorism missions against the remnants of al Qaida. The U.S. “combat mission” will be over by the end of this year, and the ANSF will be responsible for securing Afghanistan, according to Obama.
The issue of troop levels in Afghanistan has sparked wide disagreement, often pitting administration officials against military experts.
White House officials had floated the idea of leaving behind a much smaller force. Vice President Joe Biden reportedly recommended leaving as few as 1,000 troops for counterterrorism purposes only. There was even talk of a “zero option,” whereby all American troops would have been withdrawn.
Some commanders called for leaving behind far more troops than the 10,000 that Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford requested. In congressional testimony in January 2013, the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, recommended leaving 20,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014.
U.S. officials hope NATO America’s European allies will contribute a few thousand troops of their own to the post-2014 mission. Decisions about the size of NATO’s future presence in Afghanistan will likely be made next month, according to officials.
“We expect that our allies will be with us going forward,” Obama said in his speech.
But a senior administration official said the 9,800 troops will be “sufficient” to achieve U.S. goals, even without NATO support.
Officials said Obama’s decision about Afghanistan should be viewed in the larger context of global threats and priorities.
“This makes sense from our national security interests precisely because of the way in which the counterterrorism mission and threat has changed. Again, as we have seen al-Qaida’s core push back, and we’ve seen regional affiliates seek to gain a foothold in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa, what makes sense is a strategy that is not designed for the threat as it existed in 2001 or 2004. We need a strategy for how it exists in 2014 and 2016, and that is going to involve far more partnership and support across this entire region and less of the type of presence that the United States had in Afghanistan over the last 13 years,” a senior administration official said.
“The bottom line is, it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said. “When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000. In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.”
On Wednesday, Obama is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the speech, he will lay out how Afghanistan fits into his broader foreign policy strategy.