A day ahead of a big foreign policy speech at West Point tomorrow, President Obama is making public his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
Obama is largely taking the recommendation of his generals and plans to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan for one year beyond the withdrawal of combat forces in December. By the end of 2015, that number will be halved with troops consolidated in the Kabul area, and their primary mission will not be combat but counter-terrorism.
By the end of 2016 fewer than 1000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, largely to staff a security office in Kabul.
NPR’s Scott Horsley joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the president’s plan.
- Scott Horsley, NPR White House correspondent.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson. President Obama spoke about an hour ago in the Rose Garden at the White House about his plans to leave almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. When I took office we had nearly 180,000 troops in harms way. By the end of this year we will have less than 10,000.
HOBSON: The president said that by the end of 2016, there will be almost no troops left in Afghanistan from the United States. Joining us from Washington is NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley, who was, by the way, with the president on his weekend trip to Afghanistan. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: So, combat forces had already been scheduled to withdraw by the end of December. What do you make of this news today?
HORSLEY: This had been the big question mark - is how many, if any US forces, would stay behind after the end of this year. And as you said, 9,800 is the number the president asked. What this reminded me of was the speech he gave at West Point back in 2009 when, on the one hand, he announced a surge in US forces going into Afghanistan and, on the other hand, he spelled out a timetable for those forces of eventual withdrawal. The same way today he said okay it's going to be nearly 10,000 troops left behind in the beginning of 2015. But nearly all of those will be gone by the end of 2016. So, this sort of reflects the push-pull that the President is under - on the one hand to not squander what he says are the gains the US forces have made but on the other hand not to allow, sort of, open-ended commitment in Afghanistan.
HOBSON: But how does this work? How is this going to work, especially when it comes to the Afghans of being on board with this?
HORSLEY: Well, initially starting in 2015, those 9,800 US troops will be spread throughout Afghanistan, but by the end of 2015 - the end of next year - about half of those troops will be gone. And the remaining troops will be headquartered in two spots - that's the Bagram airfield, where the president was over the weekend, and in Kabul, the capital of course. And then by 2016, virtually all the US forces will be gone, save a small, sort of, normal force that would be there to protect the embassy, and they would be based in Kabul. All of this, of course, is contingent on getting cooperation from the incoming president of Afghanistan.
There has been a bilateral security agreement negotiated. It was negotiated with the outgoing president, Karzai, but Karzai refused to sign it. Both the men who are in line to become the next president have said they will sign it soon after taking office, later this summer. So if that happens, all is okay. If it does not happen for some reason, the U.S. has said it won't leave any troops in Afghanistan without that kind of deal.
HOBSON: Now Republicans are already criticizing this plan. Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted today, President Obama is not ending wars, he's losing them.
HORSLEY: I think the big Republican criticism is not so much about the number, the 9,800, but it's about that timetable. They've long said it's a mistake to set a timetable. They say that just emboldens the Taliban and Al Qaeda to, sort of, hang in there. They know Americans will be leaving and they'll have the run of the country.
What the White House would counter is that timetables in the past have actually been helpful in, sort of, motivating the Afghan national security forces to step up. And the president said in a meeting with his commanders in Afghanistan over the weekend, that he's actually been pleasantly surprised at the progress that the Afghan national security forces have made. It's worked out better than he really thought it would. The U.S. side says that the Afghans did a good job of protecting the first round of the elections earlier this year. And within a few weeks, we'll have a finalist, and the first democratic transition of power in transition.
HOBSON: And of course this all comes ahead of a big speech from President Obama on foreign policy tomorrow at West Point. NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley, thanks so much.
HORSLEY: Good talking to you.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.