President Obama reversed course on his Afghanistan withdrawal plan Thursday and announced that 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely on a $15 billion-a-year mission to counter a resilient Taliban and the growing threat of ISIS.
"It's the right thing to do," Obama said while insisting that he was not "disappointed" at having to go back on his original plan to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before he left office with the exception of about 1,000 for embassy security.
"Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be," Obama said in explaining his decision. "Meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains particularly in rural areas and can still launch deadly attacks in cities including Kabul."
"This isn't the first time those adjustments have been made" in the force levels in Afghanistan, Obama said, "and it probably won't be the last. I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort."
The 9,800 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will stay through most of 2016 and the force will drop to about 5,500 for prolonged counter-terror and training missions by the end of 2016 or early 2017, Obama said from the White House Roosevelt room.
Obama was flanked by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Vice President Joe Biden and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the 12-minute announcement that meant he would not be able to fulfill his campaign pledges to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before the next president's inaugural.
When the war in Afghanistan ends for the US will now "ultimately be answered by the next commander-in-chief," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a conference call with reporters after Obama's remarks.
Sixteen U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year to bring the total to 2,372 since the U.S. began operations there in late 2001, and more than 17,600 have been wounded.
At the end of his remarks, Obama spoke directly to the troops who will be asked to make more sacrifices on future deployments to Afghanistan.
"To our men and women in uniform, I know this means some of you will rotate back into Afghanistan, Obama said. Afghanistan remained a dangerous place, he said, and I do not send you into harm's way lightly."
"It's the most solemn decision I make, but as your commander-in-chief, "I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and other nations," Obama said.
To the American people, I know many of you have grown weary of this conflict," he said. "Yet given what's at stake in Afghanistan, I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com