has delayed his planned troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, meaning there will now be 8,400 US forces in the country when he leaves office in January.
The US president’s for that figure was 5,500. In 2012, he that the war would be over by 2014.
In a surprise White House statement on Wednesday, Obama warned that a “precarious” security situation in could yet provide support to terrorists some 15 years after the September 11 attacks that first led to western military intervention.
The much slower-than-expected retreat from the current total of 9,800 US forces in Afghanistan comes amid a deteriorating security situation that the president warned could overwhelm Afghan government partners without further assistance.
“It’s in our national interest – after all the blood and treasure we have invested – that we give our Afghan partners the support to succeed,” said Obama.
“This is where al-Qaida is trying to regroup, where Isil is trying to expand its presence,” he added. “If they succeed, they will attempt more attacks against us.”
The decision appears to reflect successful lobbying by commanders to maintain forces as close to the current level as possible.
Last autumn, the outgoing commander Gen John “JC” Campbell issued a rare public declaration in Senate testimony that he could not live with 5,500 unless the mission was just to protect the embassy – which he considered a mistake. Usually generals try not to preordain decisions for presidents in testimony, so it was widely seen as a sign of the military looking past Obama to the next commander-in-chief.
On Wednesday, White House officials said the timing of Obama’s announcement partly reflected a Nato summit due to start tomorrow, but it also comes a day after he travelled with Hillary Clinton on Air Force One.
“We expect it will be welcomed by our allies and the Afghan government,” a senior administration official told reporters in a briefing, claiming the decision was to “provide clarity about our enduring support” and “demonstrate continued US leadership”.
The president said that the extra troop numbers did not reflect a change in the US mission, which is officially to provide “training and support” to Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism missions, rather than engage in “major ground war”.
Later, White House officials insisted that while counter-terrorism operations were “not focused on the Taliban”, new authorities for air and ground combat roles would allow the US “the best possible capacity to come to the assistance of Afghan security forces”. “With these authorities, we are giving ourselves the capacity to come to their support in certain circumstances,” said one official.
In his brief speech, Obama acknowledged the “security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious” and said Afghan security forces were “still not as strong as they need to be”.
“The Taliban remains a threat,” he added. “They have gained ground in some places.”
The announcement was and Republicans in Congress, some of whom called for an end to any reduction in troop numbers.
“I welcome President Obama’s decision to reverse his previous plan to drawdown US forces in Afghanistan,” said the hawkish senator John McCain in a statement.
“While I believe conditions on the ground warranted retaining the current force level, the decision to retain 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan into next year is certainly preferable to cutting those forces by nearly half,” he added. “That said, when the President himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as ‘precarious,’ it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 US troops by the end of the year.”