President Obama announced Thursday that the United States military will keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan through at least the end of his term in 2017.
Abandoning his previous goal of near-complete withdrawal by the end of his tenure, the commander in chief acknowledged that Afghan forces are still not strong enough to fend off Taliban fighters on their own.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures. As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again,” he said in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.
The United States, Obama continued, will remain engaged in two narrow but vital missions: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida.
The 9,800 U.S. troops currently in the war-torn country will remain throughout most of 2016 before dropping to 5,500 toward the end the year or in early 2017, Obama said — prolonging U.S. involvement in the 14-year-old war.
Obama said that Afghans rather than Americans are now handling major ground combat with the Taliban and patrolling Afghan villages and valleys. The Afghan people are “fully responsible for securing their country,” he added.
He praised the bravery and sacrifice of American and Afghan troops but acknowledged the advancement of terrorists throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. Just last month, the Taliban took control of the northern city of Kunduz for over two weeks before relinquishing power Tuesday.
After laying out the new plan, Obama said he wanted to speak directly to those whose lives are effected most directly by these decisions: the Afghan people, the U.S. military and the American people.
President Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 15. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
“To the Afghan people who have suffered so much, Americans’ commitment to you, to a secure, stable and unified Afghanistan, that remains firm,” he said. “Our two nations have forged a strategic partnership for the long term. As you defend and build your country, today is a reminder that the United States keeps our commitments.”
Obama said he knows this announcement means some U.S. men and women in uniform will need to return to Afghanistan, where 25 Americans gave their lives this year. He noted that though the U.S. has ended its combat mission, the country is still a dangerous place.
“I do not send you into harm’s way lightly. It’s the most solemn decision that I make,” he said. “I know the wages of war and the wounded warriors I visit in the hospital and in the grief of Gold Star Families. But as your commander in chief, I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation.”
Obama sought to assure Americans who have grown weary of this conflict that he does not support the idea of endless war or marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve the nation’s central security interests.
“Yet, given what’s at stake in Afghanistan and the opportunity for a stable and committed ally that can partner with us in the prevention of future threats … I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort,” he said.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said at a press conference Thursday afternoon that the new plan seems like a reasonable forecast at this time.
“I’m grateful the president was willing to, and in fact eager to, make an adjustment in a plan that was after all over a year old in light of certain circumstances that constantly change,” Carter told reporters. “That’s the nature of this kind of conflict, the nature of this kind of development.”