Republican lawmakers and foreign policy experts blasted President Barack Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that he would fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 as a move that could embolden the Taliban and eventually lead to a resurgence in violence.
Obama announced that 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan going into next year, a number that would be reduced by about half by the end of 2015. U.S. forces would be cut to a normal embassy presence by the end of 2016 with a security assistance office in Kabul.
America will “never waver in our determination to deny al Qaeda the safe haven that they had before 9/11,” Obama said.
“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” he said. “The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans. But what the United States can do, what we will do, is secure our interests and help give the Afghans a chance, an opportunity, to seek a long-overdue and hard-earned peace.”
However, the president’s plan instantly drew criticism from Republicans who charged that the announced timeline of withdrawal would encourage the Taliban to simply wait out the final departure of U.S. forces. That could enable terrorist groups such as al Qaeda to reenter the country and again plot attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the White House risked leaving Afghanistan in the same situation as Iraq. U.S. officials in 2011 failed to secure a long-term agreement for a minimum troop presence in Iraq, where sectarian violence has now reached its highest levels in five years without the assistance of U.S. forces.
“I’m pleased the White House met the military’s request for forces in Afghanistan,” McKeon said in a statement. “However, holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer 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?” he continued. “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.”
Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), and Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) also noted that Obama had previously announced dates for troop withdrawals regarding his surge strategy in Afghanistan. The president’s decisions to set fixed timetables without consideration of conditions on the ground harm U.S. credibility, they argued.
“The president came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited,” they said in a statement. “But wars do not end just because politicians say so.”
“The president appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq,” they continued. “Today’s announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region.”
Sens. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), a member of the defense authorizing and appropriations committees, also expressed concerns in statements about Obama’s timeline for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan.
While some senior military commanders and U.S. defense officials approve of the plan for keeping roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through next year, the Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that other intelligence officials think that number is not nearly high enough.
Afghan security forces, trained by U.S. troops, have had some recent successes in preventing the Taliban from regaining strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan and preventing the disruption of presidential elections. Both remaining presidential candidates have said they would sign an agreement to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.
However, those successes could come undone if the United States prematurely withdraws its forces, wrote Frederick Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, on Tuesday.
“Afghanistan is far from hopeless,” he said. “Most of all, though, Afghans hope that the U.S. will not abandon them as we have done before. The president’s announced timeline for continued withdrawals may dash that hope.”
Obama on Wednesday will outline a foreign policy vision for his second term that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral,” according to one administration official who discussed his upcoming commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.