In a surprising move Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama declared that the pace of pulling troops out of Afghanistan would slow considerably, leaving around 8,400 in the country by the end of his term. Previously, Obama planned to pull forces down to just 5,500, but several factors have influenced the administration to reconsider this goal.
Although Obama had declared an end to combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s obvious that the U.S. is still engaged in conflict today and that war is only growing longer. Part of the influence in this decision came from evidence that territory had been retaken by the Taliban and that this terrorist force is currently terrorizing the population once again. With evidence that the Afghan government is still extremely fragile and in need of promised support, the Obama administration has concluded that pulling too many troops out of the country would be risky for both Afghanistan and the United States.
Congressional Opinions on American Troops in Afghanistan
Republican leaders admit they prefer the new plan to the original that would lower the number to 5,500. However, they favor an even larger force in the Middle East and so opposed the draw down. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, claimed that “If we keep 9,800, there is a decent chance we can succeed.” Several others have shown support by saying this change demonstrates that national security is a priority and that America will not back down from its long-term commitment to Afghanistan.
Many members of congress, and several media outlets, have drawn attention to promises that the Obama administration has made regarding troops in the Middle East and have said that the decision announced on Wednesday was far more political than militaristic. Over the course of Obama’s terms in office, he has met some promises and fallen short of others as competing goals have vied for attention. In his first term, Obama promised to pull out of Afghanistan completely by the presidential election in 2012. As we see now, that never happened since the deadline was pushed back two years at first and then another two years to where we are now. Even though troops have not completely left these conflict countries, it is true that the number of troops have dropped dramatically since the peak of the war—more than a 99 percent reduction, in fact. There has even been a significant decrease from the 38,000 stationed there just two years ago.
So what is the objective of these remaining troops? Obama reported that efforts will continue to be focused around training the Afghan military and advising them in order to further counter terrorism efforts. Deployment operations will not be much different than they are now. Two- and three-star level Afghan troops will still be advised and trained by U.S. troops. U.S. forces will also provide unique capabilities such as attack warplanes, spy aircraft, and medical care, among others. A new change in engagement rules, however, gives Americans a lot more flexibility regarding airstrikes and ground combat. Troops will also now be able to directly fight the Taliban.
As one of his last major moves in office, Obama believes this number will set up the next president for success, providing him or her with a range of options for how to proceed. Time will tell us whether this proves effective or not.