President Barack Obama on Thursday abandoned his pledge to end America’s longest war, announcing plans to keep at least 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office in 2017 and hand the conflict off to his successor.
It is another setback for the president in his quest to extricate the U.S. from more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. That goal was already tarnished by the return of U.S. forces to Iraq last year to help fight the Islamic State, a military mission Obama has said will likely outlast his presidency.
Now, the winner of the 2016 presidential election will also become the third American commander in chief to oversee the Afghan war.
“I know many of you have grown weary of this conflict,” Obama said, addressing the American people in remarks from the White House. “As you are all well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war.”
But he added, “”I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
The president had originally planned to withdraw all but a small embassy-based force from Afghanistan at the end of next year, shortly before leaving office. Under the new $15 billion-a-year plan, the U.S. will maintain its current force of 9,800 through most of 2016, then begin drawing down to 5,500 late in the year or in early 2017.
His decision thrusts the war into the middle of a presidential campaign that so far has barely touched on Afghanistan. Candidates now will be pressed to say how they will try to do what Obama could not — end a conflict that has killed more than 2,230 American service members and cost more than $1 trillion.
On Thursday, leading Democratic candidates were silent about the president’s decision, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state. Last year, after Obama announced his original 2016 withdrawal timeline, Clinton said she would be open to extending the U.S. presence if Afghan leaders made that request.
The president’s revamped plan was welcomed by several Republican presidential candidates, but some said 5,500 troops would not be enough.
“If he is truly committed to fighting terrorism and securing a stable Afghanistan, he shouldn’t short-change what our military commanders have said they need to complete the mission,” said Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor did not say how many troops he thought would be sufficient.
U.S. officials say Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked Obama to keep the troops in his country when they met in Washington earlier this year. Obama sees Ghani as a more reliable partner than former president Hamid Karzai, a mercurial leader who deeply frustrated the White House.
The president’s decision was reinforced when Taliban fighters took control of the key northern city of Kunduz late last month, leading to a protracted battle with Afghan forces supported by American airstrikes. During the fighting, a U.S. air attack hit a hospital, killing 12 Doctors Without Borders staff and 10 patients.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on the hospital days before it was destroyed because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity.