The announcement marks a sharp reversal of Obama’s previous plan to leave a small force, about 1,000 troops, at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after 2016, effectively allowing him to declare an end to the 14-year U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.
But a worsening security situation and fears about the recent rise of a small but growing Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) franchise in Afghanistan threw a wrench in plans for a rapid drawdown. Late last month, the Taliban briefly seized the northeastern city of Kunduz, marking the first time the group captured a major population center since the U.S. invasion ousted it from power in 2001.
Though the Afghan army, with considerable U.S. air support, was ultimately able to drive Taliban fighters out of the city, the Taliban surge fit a wider, troubling pattern of gains across the country. According to the latest U.N. data, the group has now spread farther across the country than at any point other since 2001, with six of the country’s 13 provinces now labeled as high or extreme danger.
Last week Gen. John Campbell, who leads the current 14,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Afghans still “cannot handle the fight alone.” When Obama made the decision to withdraw troops, Campbell said, he “did not take into account the changes over the past two years,” including a strengthened Taliban, the rise of an ISIL “province” in the country and last year’s election of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been more receptive to the U.S. military presence than his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
In light of the challenges, top military officials have been pushing the White House to keep a force of at least 5,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond Obama’s time in office. The new post-2016 plan announced Thursday resembles the “lily pad” proposal fronted by outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, in which small forces will be stationed at four locations — Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar — so that they can hop around the country when needed. Maintaining the 5,500-strong presence will cost about $14.6 billion per year, compared with $10 billion for an embassy force, administration officials told reporters.
NATO, which contributes over 6,000 troops to the U.S.-led mission, will also maintain some forces in the country, though it has not yet settled on a number.
Obama said the U.S.-backed Afghan government supported the decision to keep U.S.-NATO troops on, for the sake of the country’s stability. But he also sought to frame the effort in Afghanistan, where top Al-Qaeda leaders have hidden out for years, as essential to U.S. national security interests.
“As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again,” Obama said. He added that he did not support the idea of an “endless war” and acknowledged that the American public was weary of the United States’ nearly decade-and-a-half entanglement in Afghanistan.