WASHINGTON — President Obama announced a plan on Tuesday to keep a contingency force of 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and pull all American troops out of the country by the end of 2016.
Obama said that the U.S. remains committed to assisting Afghanistan on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda remnants. He stressed that the U.S. will only sustain a military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs a Bilateral Security Agreement.
"The bottom line is that it's time to turn the page on more than a decade when so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Obama said in Rose Garden statement. "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 two wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe."
Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign a security agreement before he leaves office this summer, much to Obama's consternation. The president bluntly warned Karzai earlier this year that the "longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."
Both of the leading candidates to replace Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, however, have voiced their support of signing the BSA if they are elected, Obama noted.
"I am hopeful we can get this done," Obama said.
According to Obama's plan, U.S. troop levels would would be reduced by about half, consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and on Bagram Air Base, by 2015.
By the end of 2016, the U.S. will draw down to a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as the U.S. has done in Iraq, he said.
Republican lawmakers Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona called Obama's plan "short-sighted."
"The President came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited," the senators said in a joint statement. "But wars do not end just because politicians say so."
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, called on Obama to revisit the troop levels over the next two years.
"Although I am pleased the president has acknowledged that abandoning Afghanistan at this important moment would undermine the hard-won gains of our armed forces who have sacrificed so much to protect our country since the 9/11 attacks, it is my strong desire that the administration revisit conditions on the ground in 2015 and 2016 to determine if a full withdrawal is warranted," Corker said.
Obama, in his primary victory in 2008 over Hillary Rodham Clinton, repeatedly reminded voters of what he saw as Washington's haste to go to war. On Tuesday, he noted that "Americans have learned it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them."
"This is how wars end in the 21st Century," Obama said. "We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place and it is not America's responsibility to make it one."
The size of the post-2014 force makes sense, but the rationale for removing all of the troops is lacking, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
With 9,800 troops, the U.S. military can support about six bases along with their Afghan counterparts, O'Hanlon said. That force could also maintain air bases, including drones, in key parts of the country.
Obama split the difference on what many experts on the region had suggested. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged that 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops remain beyond 2014.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel endorsed the president's plan. It "will help ensure that al-Qaeda cannot reconstitute itself in Afghanistan, and it will help us sustain the significant progress we have made in training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces," Hagel said.
Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at the RAND Corp., advocated similar troop levels to what Obama settled on in an article he co-authored late last year.
With about 10,000 U.S. troops, commanders in Afghanistan will be able to sustain a special operations unit to help Afghan forces, collect and analyze intelligence on insurgents and terrorists and call in airstrikes when needed, Jones said.
Further reductions should be based on the diminishing threat from insurgents in Afghanistan, he said. Withdrawing all U.S. forces by 2016, Jones said, seems aimed at satisfying a domestic audience weary of war.
"In the end, nobody may be happy," he said.
Further reductions in 2015 could be justified as Afghan security forces improve. But a full withdrawal after 2016 would be a mistake, O'Hanlon said. He pointed to the experience in Germany, Britain, Korea and Japan, where U.S. forces remain long after wars have ended but the need to support strong allies remains.
"Where is the virtue in declaring now that the follow-on mission will only last two years?" O'Hanlon said. "It seems to me that keeping the American people safe should be the fundamental emphasis, not being able to say that we've totally departed."
Earlier on Tuesday, Obama spoke by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- all leaders of key NATO countries -- to detail his plan.The president also spoke with Karzai on Tuesday morning.
The former commander of all forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, had recommended more than 13,000 U.S. troops remain there after this year.There are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was pleased with the U.S. troop level of 9,800 after this year, but added that further withdrawals should be based on commanders' recommendations, "not an arbitrary number from Washington."
Obama is expected to continue to talk about his Afghanistan pullout plan when he delivers a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy on Wednesday. The address is expected to lay out his broad foreign policy vision in the aftermath of more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.