Obama backtracks on Afghanistan withdrawal, cites ‘precarious’ security situation

President Barack Obama called the security environment in Afghanistan “precarious” and said today he will keep more troops on the ground in Afghanistan than previously planned. Obama repeatedly promised to end the US mission in Afghanistan before the end of his administration in 2017, but a worsening security situation stemming from previous ill-timed reductions in force and a resilient Taliban proved that to be impossible.

“Instead of going down to 5,500 troops by the end of this year, the United States will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year, through the end of my administration,” Obama said in a briefing at the White House.

Despite admitting the deteriorating conditions, Obama announced he will reduce the number of troops in the country by 1,400 by the end of 2016. Obama did not explain how withdrawing an additional 1,400 US forces this year will aid in the fight against the Taliban and its allies. The Taliban has regained ground in the strategic province of Helmand and other areas in spite of direct US military support to Afghan forces.

Obama admitted that the Taliban has continued to wage an effective insurgency and has taken control of territory.

“The Taliban remains a threat,” Obama said. “They’ve gained ground in some places.”

There are currently 9,800 troops in country conducting an “advise and assist” mission to Afghan forces as well as counterterrorism operations. Those two missions will not change, he stated.

The admission that security in Afghanistan is worsening is a dramatic shift by the Obama administration. Previously the administration maintained that Afghan forces were capable of sustaining combat operations with minimal or no US assistance.

However, this view flew in the face of the realities on the ground. The Taliban waited out the US “surge” that targeted their bastions in the south, and began attacking vulnerable Afghan forces when US troops began their withdrawal. By 2014, the Taliban gained control of a handful of far-flung districts while maintaining a guerrilla campaign throughout the country.

By the summer of 2015, the Afghan government admitted that four districts were under Taliban control. A study by The Long War Journal indicated that by the beginning of October 2015, the Taliban controlled 29 districts and contested another 36.

The Afghan government, which has notoriously underestimated the threat posed by the Taliban and areas under the jihadist group’s control, admitted in late June 2015 that nine district were now controlled by the Taliban and another 40 are heavily contested. The Long War Journal estimated that the Taliban controls 39 districts and contest another 43.

Perhaps the most worrisome indicator of deteriorating security in Afghanistan is the discovery of al Qaeda training camps in the country. Al Qaeda operated two large scale training camps, including a large facility, in the Shorabak district in Kandahar for more than a year before they were discovered by US forces. One of the camps occupied an area of 30 square miles and was well provisioned with weapons, ammunition, communications gear, and other equipment. In October 2015, a large US military strike force took four days to clear the two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak. More than 150 al Qaeda fighters are thought to have been killed during the operation.

The US military only discovered the location of the two camps in Shorabak after raiding another in Paktika province in July 2015. Abu Khalil al Sudani, one of al Qaeda’s most senior figures, is thought to have been killed during that raid. Al Qaeda obviously assessed the situation in Paktika as being safe enough to place one of their top leaders there.

The Shorabak raids shocked the US military and intelligence and forced them to revised its long-held estimate of 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan upwards to 300 in country. For more than six years, The Long War Journal has warned that official estimate of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is erroneous, and the jihadist group remains a significant threat to this day. [See LWJ report, US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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7 Comments

  • Arjuna says:

    You go, Barry Ho! Once again, had you not retreated, you would not have to re-deploy. Oops. Another multi-billion dollar premature withdrawal debacle.
    But John Kerry’s offer to surrender to the child rapists still stands:
    //indianexpress.com/article/world/world-news/us-offers-for-peace-talks-with-taliban-isnurgency-afghansitan-war-afghanistan-stability-2898077/

    • Lizabeth says:

      Tried the pastrami Reuben – is good. Hordsraeish sauce is a little too warm for me unless cut with cocktail sauce makings or tartar sauce. My preference on the rye bread is marbled and dressing is Russian. Oven baked is okay but fried is just as good. Damn, I'm at work and they don't serve these for lunch here…Joe R>

  • Paddy Singh says:

    Basically, it is to shore up Kabul because the Afghan government does not exist anywhere else. Why in hell does not Obama blame Bush for having gone into Afghanistan at all?

  • Frank Dunn says:

    “Obama did not explain how withdrawing an additional 1,400 US forces this year will aid in the fight against the Taliban and its allies. ”

    Drawdown of the 1,400 by year end has nothing to do with war in Afghanistan and everything to do with US presidential campaign. Drawdown will permit Obama to repeat his false claim that “I end wars” versus his evil Repub predecessor who started them. We will surely hear Obama make a similar drawdown announcement for Iraq if Mosul falls in October.

    News media will be beside themselves in reporting that “Drawdowns mean Obama is keeping his promise of ending two of America’s longest wars”. As if a reduction in our troop numbers somehow stops these wars.

  • irebukeu says:

    Boo, Boo. It’s way past time to exit. We are late for it already. The war has been Afghanized and its time to beat feet. Americans are divided on the wars success or failure, those who press for more war and intervention in this place of bad events will say that disaster looms if we just admit failure among ourselves and just leave. Divided as this war’s supporters are on its rules of engagement devised originally by Petraeus and McChrystal, or even its desired end point, only more political division and a never ending burden in lives and money lay ahead for America if this war be pushed forward or expanded. Twenty trillion in debt and sinking deeper. bin laden’s goal was to drag the United States into Afghanistan and eventually break us through debt and division. The smell of coffee is in the air. It’s time to get out of bed and use our noses. If we wont get out of Afghanistan lets at least figure a way out of debt.

  • Rosario says:

    Another case of foreign policy malpractice. I hope Afghanistan can stay together for another spring – and more help.

  • Mamzic says:

    Smart move by Obama, take it off the election table and leave it to Clinton to complete the withdrawal.
    Unless the Taliban actually become a threat to the United States.
    Besides, any troops we pull from Afghanistan can be sent to Iraq to help take back Fallujah.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis