WASHINGTON — Once again, the United States is delaying the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan — prolonging the United States’ longest war.
President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the U.S. will keep its nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016. And in 2017, troop levels will be more than five times higher than the 1,000 U.S. troops previously planned.
Still, Obama and his top national security advisers are keen to remind the American public that the troops’ two-pronged mission — training and advising Afghan security forces and carrying out counterterrorism operations — remains the same.
“The nature of the mission has not changed and the cessation of our combat role has not changed,” Obama said.
Still, the U.S. just can’t seem to get out of Afghanistan.
Why does the U.S. need to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan for another year?
The main reason comes down to one simple fact: Afghan security forces just aren’t ready to stand on their own.
Nearly one year ago, U.S. and NATO forces formally ended their long-running combat mission in Afghanistan, which began in the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That means the 2015 fighting season was the first time Afghanistan’s troops were officially tasked with defending their country with significantly reduced help from the U.S.
It’s a test for which the Afghans have in recent months appeared ill-equipped.
A watershed moment came late last month when a major Afghan city fell to the Taliban for the first time in the 14-year history of the U.S.’s military presence there.
While insisting that Afghan forces have made tremendous progress and are fighting “bravely and tenaciously,” Obama also acknowledged the vulnerable security situation.
“Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” Obama said Thursday. “The bottom line is, in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.”
But the U.S. has been training Afghan forces for years now, so why do they still need American help?
It’s true: the U.S. has poured billions of dollars of military, political and economic aid into Afghanistan
So how is maintaining fewer than 10,000 troops for the next year and then 5,500 troops beginning in 2017 going to make a difference?
The administration insisted Thursday that the U.S. training and advising mission has been steadily progressing and expressed confidence that by maintaining the same number of troops, the U.S. would push that progress further.
But the administration was also careful not to set any grand goals for what another year of progress would look like. And it stressed that more changes could still come as the situation on the ground develops.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a call with reporters that the fact that the U.S. military’s mission remains the same is “an indication that it’s working and that we’re seeing progress.”
Melissa Dalton, a former Pentagon official who served as a senior adviser for force planning, praised the decision to delay the troop drawdown and said the continued U.S. presence would help bolster training efforts.
“In part it’s the actual day-to-day interactions (between U.S. advisers and Afghan troops) that matter,” she said, noting that the troop presence would be both a psychological and political boon to Afghanistan, demonstrating that the U.S. is “not walking away” from a situation that remains “very rocky terrain and uncertain.”
But still, Dalton said there’s a “distinct possibility” that the reality in Afghanistan will not be much different in another year or two and the U.S. would extend its stay yet again.
So this might not work?
Some military experts have suggested that the U.S. should once again increase the size of its force in Afghanistan, not just hold on to current numbers.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday the Pentagon “did a lot of homework” to determine the number of troops that should remain in Afghanistan past 2017 and that the number Obama authorized is “enough.”
But retired Lt. Col. Scott Man, a former Special Forces officer, said Thursday the U.S. needs to go beyond its training mission with the central Afghan government to working more deeply with tribal leaders in the country’s largely rural territory, where the government in Kabul has little effect.
“The reality is if we don’t want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terror … we have to do a better job of seeing the realities in Afghanistan,” he said on CNN.
Stephen Biddle, the author of an influential policy paper, “Ending the War in Afghanistan,” went even further. He suggested that the U.S. has delved into the training mission as an “apolitical process of giving a military that doesn’t have enough stuff more stuff.”
“The trouble is military power is a deeply political process and the political interests we have in these conflicts are very different than the political interests that our allies have in these conflicts,” Biddle said.
But the troops aren’t all there for training and advising, right?
The counterterrorism prong of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is also a big driver of the U.S. decision to maintain more troops.
It was the impetus for the U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and to see Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorists would undermine everything the U.S. has devoted to the mission. Billions of dollars have been spent and more than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed over the 14-year war.
While the U.S. has decimated most of the core al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, other terrorist cells have emerged and continued to operate in the country.
ISIS, the terrorist group that has ravaged swaths of Syria and Iraq, has also now sprung up in Afghanistan.
Obama stressed Thursday that the U.S.’s continued involvement in Afghanistan was aimed at continuing to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorists.
What else is weighing on Obama’s decision?
Obama and later his top officials repeatedly emphasized Thursday that their continued involvement in Afghanistan came at the behest of the Afghan government, which “supports a strong partnership with the United States.”
Obama has repeatedly made it clear that that wasn’t the case in Iraq before the U.S. withdrew its troops there in late 2011, and he’s taken a lot of heat for failing to leave a residual U.S. military force. Without U.S. support, Iraqi forces quickly lost key cities in northern Iraq to a sudden and effective ISIS advance.
And just as ISIS is now also establishing a foothold in Afghanistan, Obama is being cautious to prevent the current situation in Iraq from unfolding in Afghanistan.
So is the U.S.’s decision to maintain a larger presence in Afghanistan a political one?
Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Thursday that “politics plays absolutely no role in the President’s decision-making here.”
Either way, it certainly has a political dimension: One of Obama’s major campaign promises was to get the U.S. out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some said Obama’s decision Thursday amounted to passing the buck to the next administration, which will have to decide whether to maintain the 5,500 U.S. troops now expected to remain in Afghanistan through 2017 — at least.
Earnest had an answer to that.
Laura Miller, the State Department’s acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, responded: “This decision ensures continuity of our efforts to solve our problems in Afghanistan, not continuity of the problem.”
So how much longer does the U.S. plan to continue its military involvement in Afghanistan?
It isn’t clear.
Obama is certainly hoping his decision will pave the way for an end to the conflict.
While the sustained troop presence is aimed at moving the Afghan forces closer to the point of being able to fend for themselves against continuing Taliban offensives, Obama also pointed to his ultimate desire for a conclusion to a war that has ravaged Afghanistan for more than a decade: a peace treaty.
“By now it should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan’s progress, the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government,” Obama said.
By leaving a larger military force in the country than anticipated, the U.S. could actually help drive the Taliban to an agreement at the negotiating table — talks that so far have ended in stalemate.
“Does this buy us some time and leverage to move the ball forward on that?” asked Dalton, the former Department of Defense official. “I think so.”
She added that advancing the peace process was likely a “main driving factor” behind the decision to bolster the U.S.’s longer-term troop presence in Afghanistan.
Fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan open up the prospects for Taliban gains, thereby pushing the Taliban toward further military action rather than a peaceful settlement that would keep Afghanistan’s secular government largely in control of the country.
Or it’s possible the Taliban could yet again bide its time until the U.S. draws down its forces again in late 2016 and hope to prevail over the Afghan government then.