This report has been updated.
President Barack Obama announced Thursday morning that he will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his administration, scrapping his withdrawal plan from a war he once declared over and leaving a final drawdown to a successor.
Speaking from a White House podium, Obama told servicemembers that he would not send them into harm’s way lightly.
“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,” the president said.
If the Afghan security forces were to fail, “it would endanger the security of us all,” he said. “This modest but meaningful extension of our presence, while sticking to our current, narrow missions, can make a real difference. It’s the right thing to do.”
“This decision is not disappointing,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. was simply adjusting its plans. “This is not the first time those adjustments have been made; it probably won’t be the last.”
Gen. John Campbell, who leads the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, welcomed the decision, saying it “serves notice to our common enemies: their war against the legitimate Afghan Government, the Afghan people, the international community, and our shared values, remains futile. It is time for them to lay down their arms and enter the political process.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also hailed the announcement: “The Afghan security forces continue to carry out their security responsibilities across the country, in a very challenging environment. So it’s crucial that we continue to support them, practically and financially, to preserve the gains we have achieved in Afghanistan through our joint efforts over many years.”
The U.S. will keep its current 9,800 troops there through most of 2016, then draw down to 5,500 at a handful of bases, including Bagram, just north of Kabul; Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south, a senior administration official said before the announcement.
The official said the decision “came as a result of an extensive, months-long review, and in consultation with his full national security team and our Afghan partners.” He stressed that U.S. troops would not return to combat: “We will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting our Afghan partners.”
The previous plan would have retained just 1,000 troops for embassy protection and certain operations. Initial timelines for the U.S. exit from Afghanistan have been extended before, but the shift announced Thursday — which ensures Obama will not fulfill his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency — has been debated over past months. The new plan reportedly resembles one given by recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Similarly, Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 6: “As I take a look at conditions on the ground, as we continue to provide [training, advice, and aid] to our Afghan partners, when the President made that decision it did not take into account the change over the last two years. And so the courses of action that I have provided to my senior leadership provide options to adjust that.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter had hinted at the shift on Wednesday. “The narrative that we’re leaving Afghanistan is self-defeating,” he told an audience at the Association of the U.S. Army conference. “We’re not, we can’t, and to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we’ve had to date.”
The troops will root out al Qaeda fighters and other militants who have now found a foothold in Afghanistan, as well as continue to train and advise Afghan security forces, officials said. But the halt to the withdrawal comes as an implicit acknowledgment they have some ways to go to fully taking on the security of their country without a sizeable U.S. military presence.
The initial withdrawal plan was expected to cost roughly $10 billion a year; the revised plan will cost some $14.6 billion annually.
The president’s pledges to end the costly and grueling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have foundered. In 2013, Obama declared an end to the Afghanistan war, America’s longest. But the country has since seen a prolonged spike in violence, infiltration by new groups such as the Islamic State, and the Taliban’s widest reach since the war began in 2001, according to the United Nations. These setbacks, combined with what Carter called a “mistaken attack” by the U.S. military on a Doctors Without Borders hospital on Oct. 2 after the Taliban took Kunduz — and domestic criticism of the Obama administration’s plans for withdrawing U.S. troops — led the White House to rethink the drawdown.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hailed the switch — and called for an even larger U.S. force. “The bottom line is that 5,500 troops will only be adequate to conduct either the counterterrorism or the train and advise mission, but not both. Our military commanders have said that both are critical to prevent Afghanistan from spiraling into chaos,” McCain said in a statement.
In his Oct. 6 testimony, Campbell said the Afghan forces had insufficient aviation, close air support, and military intelligence — gaps that helped cause the attack on the Kunduz hospital by a U.S. AC-130, called in for air support by Afghan forces.
But a U.S. military intelligence officer who served with coalition forces in Afghanistan said over-dependence on U.S. troops may continue to prevent Afghan security forces from closing these gaps.
“The concern is less with the number and more with what the defined mission is,” the officer said. “The other trap that the US and NATO may potentially fall into is exacerbating an Afghan dependency on capabilities they do not have.
“Maintaining a counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan is still important,” he said. “But if there isn’t a proper investment in training and advising Afghan forces effectively, we’ll be playing Hellfire whack-a-mole for years to come.”
Patrick Tucker and Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.