President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend.

President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend. U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Sandra Welch

Obama Wants All U.S. Troops Out of Afghanistan by 2017

President Obama wants to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, then shrink to a ‘normal embassy presence’ by 2017. By Stephanie Gaskell

This story has been updated throughout.

America’s longest war just got a little longer.

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he wants to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to continue fighting past the planned 2014 end of combat operations – and those troops would all leave by the end of 2016. The decision not only ends the unpopular war, but it begins what Obama is calling “a new chapter in American foreign policy.”

On Wednesday, the president will give the commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he will “discuss how Afghanistan fits into our broader strategy going forward.”

“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,” Obama said in a statement at the White House. “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.”

The decision to leave U.S. forces behind is not a done deal, and it’s not up to Obama. It depends on whether Afghanistan’s next leader will sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that will govern U.S. troops after official combat ends. Both of the leading candidates to replace Afghan President Hamid Karzai have said they would sign the agreement “promptly after taking office,” Obama said. A runoff is set for June 14.

“I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century, not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.”

The number is in line with Obama's top military commander in Afghanistan. In January, Gen. Joseph Dunford said he would like to see 10,000 troops stay until 2017. 

The continued presence of NATO and allied forces is unclear, though it will likely be about half the size of the U.S. commitment. The details will begin to be hammered out at the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on June 4. And the drawdown would be gradual, Obama said. At the end of 2015, the number of troops would be cut in half and would be based in Kabul and Bagram. By the end of 2016, U.S. presence “will draw down to a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as we have done in Iraq,” a senior administration official said. There are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, mostly advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.

Republicans were quick to fire back at Obama’s announcement. Sens. Lindsay Graham, of S.C., John McCain, of Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, of N.H., issued a joint statement calling the decision “a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy.”

“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 trio said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said Obama’s decision “doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically.”

“Does the President seek to replicate his mistakes in Iraq where he abandoned the region to chaos and failed to forge a real security partnership? We are in Afghanistan because it was the spawning ground of al-Qaeda and the devastating attack on American soil. Those threats still exist. We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security."

But senior administration officials told reporters that “setting dates has been helpful over the course of the last several years in having predictability.” One official said that setting a deadline to put Afghan security forces in the lead ‘helped to prepare them and that helped provide certainty as they plan their own operations. And they've performed well, and they have been in the lead. And you have not seen U.S. and international forces in the lead for combat since that transition took place.”

Ret. Gen. John Allen, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, told Defense One he agrees with Obama's decision to set a timetable. "It provides certainty to our Afghan allies and to the people of Afghanistan of our commitment to their future. This strikes a blow to the Taliban narrative of abandonment," Allen said. 

Obama’s announcement came on the heels of a surprise visit to Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend. The president did not meet with Karzai, but told U.S. troops there that they have been successful in their mission during the past 13 years of war in Afghanistan. “After all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win. And we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country,” he said.