Today, President Obama announced his plan for winding down the thirteen-year intervention in Afghanistan. On the military side, here is the summary on how many troops will remain and what they will be doing:
By the end of 2014 we will have 9,800 U.S. troops (down from the current 32,000). The mission will be focused on helping the Afghans fight the Taliban, continuing to build up the Afghan security forces capability and capacity while disrupting the remaining al-Qaeda.
By the end of 2015, we will have half that number, and they will no longer be conducting any combat missions—no more patrolling, etc. They will be focused in Kabul and Bagram Airbase advising Afghan security forces, who will have the lead.
As the President states, “America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country. American personnel will be in an advisory role. We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”
After 2015, we can expect a residual force of only 1000 troops in what he calls a “normal” embassy support posture.
Of course, if the incoming Afghan president (who will be decided in the run off in two weeks) decides not to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, the United States will pull out completely. Zero troops.
The good news is that the President did not heed the calls from some skeptics to downsize below the Pentagon’s requested force level of 10,000. This gives the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) a bit more time to take over. If all goes well, the remaining trick will be to convince Congress to continue funding the advising and equipping efforts for the ANSF as well as other economic aid, which together will allow Afghanistan to continue the positive trajectory that has been set after thirteen years of fighting and building by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the wider international community.
But Afghanistan is not out of the woods yet. 2014 will be, as President Obama calls it a “pivotal” year. As long as the ANSF can hold the Taliban back as ISAF troops make for the exits, the Obama Administration will be able to “pivot” to its other longer term foreign policy priorities, including the “rebalance” to Asia, support to NATO against an increasingly aggressive Russia, Syria, Iran, and counter-terrorism efforts from the Middle East to Africa.