|Obama in White House on Tuesday. (AFP)
Washington, May 27: US President Barack Obama today announced plans to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, a rapid drawdown that will end more than a decade of American military engagement in the country where the September 11 terrorist attacks were incubated.
Under the plan, the United States would leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but reduce that number by roughly half in 2015, according to the official. By the end of 2016, the United States would be down to “a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul”, similar to what now remains in Iraq.
All of these deployments hinge on the United States’ signing a security agreement with Afghanistan, which the administration has not yet been able to do.
“We will only sustain a military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs the bilateral security agreement,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Both Afghan presidential candidates recently reiterated their intentions to sign the agreement quickly if elected.”
During a surprise visit on Sunday to troops at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Obama said he hoped for some kind of residual American presence. But the new timetable indicates that the President is still determined to wind down the war swiftly and shift America’s resources to fighting a growing terrorism threat in West Asia and North Africa.
Obama is expected to offer a detailed foreign policy blueprint tomorrow in a commencement speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, the same setting where he announced a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009, pushing the total number of American troops past 100,000.
There are currently about 32,000 American troops in the country, and military commanders had recommended leaving at least 10,000 after the formal end of the combat mission in 2014. The troops that remain will train Afghan security forces and support counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaida, the official said. But from 2015 onward, they would be consolidated at the Bagram base and in Kabul.
The American troops will be supplemented by those of Nato countries, but the alliance members are likely to follow the American lead in withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. That would leave Afghanistan’s security largely in the hands of the Afghans.