WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to delay a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan means he falls short of his goal of ending America’s longest war by the end of his presidency.
That change reflects cold realities: Afghanistan’s military needs considerable help, the Taliban insurgents remain a threat and the Islamic State is emerging as a new danger in the country.
Obama plans to announce that he will keep about 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2017, a reversal of an earlier plan to remove nearly all troops by the end of next year. The remaining forces will continue to support Afghanistan’s security forces and maintain a counter-terrorism mission aimed at al-Qaeda militants and their affiliates in the country.
The United States role will remain limited and the U.S. military will not resume a conventional combat mission.
Critically, the additional troops will allow the United States to maintain a presence outside of Kabul on regional bases.
U.S. officials avoid drawing comparisons with Iraq, but clearly the rapid decline in security that followed the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 helped shaped the White House decision.
Sectarian tensions rose in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, and last year, the Islamic State seized large swathes of Iraqi territory. Obama sent several thousand troops back into Iraq to help rebuild its armed forces, and the military has launched daily airstrikes.
At the time of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, which candidate Obama had promised to do, the White House said then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn’t provide the legal protections necessary for a continued American presence.
In Afghanistan, the United States has a strong partner in the country’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, and its chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Both have expressed a desire for a continued American presence in the country.
Since ending the U.S. combat mission last year, Afghanistan’s military has been taking record casualties and the Taliban have increased attacks in several parts of the country.
Recently, the Taliban seized control of the northern city of Kunduz before being pushed out by Afghan forces backed by American airstrikes and some U.S. advisers. It was the radical Islamic group’s first capture of a major city since it was ousted from governing the country by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
Clearly, Obama doesn’t want Afghanistan to turn into another Iraq — even if it means scrapping a long held political goal. Reality on the ground trumps that.
Defense correspondent Michaels has made numerous trips to cover developments in Afghanistan and Iraq,
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