US President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his intention to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. In a statement from the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he expects to reduce US troops levels from the roughly 32,000 which remain there now to 9,800 by the end of this year, and to cut that number by about half by the end of 2015.
After this year, US troops deployed to Afghanistan will be used only for training and counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda, he said.
The withdrawal plan will depend, however, on the signing of a pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and the next president of Afghanistan, who is expected to take office by the end of the summer after presidential elections that are set to take place next month.
Without the BSA, according to senior administration officials who briefed reports, the US would resort to the so-called "zero option" - or withdrawing all of its troops at the end of the year.
President Hamid Karzai, whose relations with Washington have become increasingly rocky during Obama's tenure, has refused to sign the BSA, insisting that the decision be left to his successor. The two candidates in next month's run-off election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have publicly supported the agreement.
In his statement, Obama, who was due to deliver a major foreign policy address at the US Military Academy on Wednesday, put the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in the context of what he depicted as a larger transition in Washington's global military strategy, including its ongoing struggle against radical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda.
"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," he 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."
Obama was making an implicit reference to his administration's promised "rebalancing" of US strategic assets toward the Asia-Pacific region, as well as more recent concerns about Russian intentions toward its closest neighbors.
He also suggested that Washington will not leave Afghanistan having accomplished all of the objectives for which it first sent troops under George W Bush in October 2001, in the weeks that followed the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
"I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," he said. "... We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans."
Obama's announcement came under immediate attack from neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks who have long insisted that Kabul will need more trainers to protect and stabilize the country after the end of 2014, the date on which the US and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries had previously agreed would mark the transfer of all combat responsibilities to Afghan government forces.
They were particularly angry about Obama's promise to remove all US troops by the end of 2016.
"The president came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited," said Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte in a joint statement. "[He] appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all US forces from Iraq."
"Today's announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region. And regardless of anything the president says tomorrow at West Point, his decision on Afghanistan will fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead," the three senators insisted, in what has become a standard theme in Republican and neo-conservative attacks on Obama's foreign policy.
"Putting aside the fact that [10,000] is the lowest number military advisers estimated was necessary to maintain training and some counter-terrorism capability in country over not just one year but several, the decision to halve and then zero out those forces by 2016 [sic] is a reminder not only of how seriously unserious this president on strategic matters can be but also how cynically partisan he is," wrote Gary Schmitt, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard blog.
Similar concerns were voided by General David Barno (retired), who led US and international forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank influential with the administration.
"While the number [of troops] for next year seems about right, the publicly announced speedy departure plan for those troops will now unquestionably sow doubt among American friends and Afghan supporters," he noted.
"But here at home, the biggest and - for the president - the most important takeaway ... will be the certainty that by the end of 2016, America's longest war will truly be over. After 13 years and thousands of US casualties, hundreds of billion dollars spent, and wholly inconclusive results, today's speech marks the end. Few Americans will mourn this war's passing," he added.
Tuesday's announcement also came on the eve of a key NATO meeting at which Washington will seek commitments from its allies to provide around 4,000 additional troops to operate alongside US troops next year and about half that number through 2016, according to administration officials.
Those officials expressed confidence that Afghanistan's own army and police were sufficiently strong to hold off any major military challenge by the Taliban, and pointed to their performance during the first round of the presidential and provincial elections in April as evidence of major progress in US and NATO training efforts to date.
Continued training of Afghan forces, combined with preventing al-Qaeda from re-establishing a presence in Afghanistan, will remain the two main foci of US troops there once full responsibility for security is transferred to Afghan forces at the end of the year, they stressed.
They also emphasized that the recent developments across the Greater Middle East and North Africa required adjustments to Washington's counter-terrorism strategy.
"[A]s we have seen the al-Qaeda core [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] pushed 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 that existed in 2001 or 2004," one official told reporters in a conference call briefing before Obama's appearance.
"We need a strategy for how it exists in 2014 and 2016, and that is going to involve far more partnership and support across the entire region and less of the type of presence that the United States had in Afghanistan over the last 13 years."
Jim Lobe blogs on US foreign policy
(Inter Press Service)