President Obama’s Afghanistan troop drawdown announcement Tuesday drew strong criticism from some conservatives, who view it as a timetable tied not to military conditions on the ground but to a personal agenda: the president’s legacy.
“It’s kind of an act of personal narcissism,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News, reacting to the news that the U.S. will retain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan at the start of 2015, around half that number a year later, and that by the end of 2016 all troops would be out apart from a “security assistance component” attached to the U.S. Embassy.
“When this was talked about a few months ago in the press, there was a mention of the fact that if the full withdrawal happened in 2016, that would allow Obama to leave office having fulfilled the promise to liquidate the wars,” Krauthammer recalled.
“Is that how we’re now setting the strategy of the United States in a war zone, where so many have died and so much treasure and blood has been spent – so a president can leave office looking good?”
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Heritage Foundation scholar Lisa Curtis saw the retention of almost 10,000 troops beyond the end of this year as an improvement on some of the other options the White House was believed to have been mulling, but said that by announcing the troops would only stay on for two years, “Obama seems also to be trying to stake out a political legacy of being the president who ended two wars.”
“It doesn’t make sense to put a timeline on the U.S. troop commitment to the country,” Curtis wrote. “The number of troops and the duration of their presence in Afghanistan should be driven by national security imperatives, not the president’s desire for a particular political legacy.”
“To announce ahead of time you’re going to zero troops, except for the troops guarding the embassy, at the end of 2016, is beyond irresponsible,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said on CNN’s Crossfire. “It’s totally crazy. You’re telling them we’re getting out.
“What is wrong with saying – leaving it to them, saying, ‘I’m going to make a judgment based on conditions on the ground’?”
In his announcement, Obama said the post-2014 deployment would focus on “training Afghan forces and supporting counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda.”
He also said the plan was dependent on Kabul’s signing of the bilateral security agreement (BSA) negotiated between the two governments.
The BSA was approved by a gathering of tribal elders last November, but outgoing President Hamid Karzai repeatedly refused to sign it. The two contenders to succeed him in a runoff election next month, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, have both pledged to do so quickly once in office.
‘Convenient political deadlines’
Obama said his determination about the post-2014 commitment was made after consultations with his national security team and Congress.
Reaction on Capitol Hill was mixed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the plan “unquestionably advances our national security interests in Afghanistan,” but Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said that if the administration wants to keep any troops in Afghanistan post-2014, then Congress should vote on it.
“The American people deserve a voice in issues of war and peace,” Merkley said. “Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships, but it is not the right approach when it comes to war.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) cautiously welcomed Obama’s announcement, but said he “look[ed] forward to hearing more specifics on how the proposed troop number will adequately cover the defined missions as well as provide appropriate force protection for our military and civilian personnel.”
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) welcomed the fact Obama had met the military’s request to keep troops in Afghanistan, but questioned the timetable.
“Does the president seek to replicate his mistakes in Iraq where he abandoned the region to chaos and failed to forge a real security partnership?” McKeon asked.
“We are in Afghanistan because it was the spawning ground of al-Qaeda and the devastating attack on American soil. Those threats still exist. We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security.”
A trio of Republican senators, all members of the Armed Services Committee, slammed what they called Obama’s “arbitrary date” for the final withdrawal of forces.
“The president appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq,” Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) said in a joint statement. “Today’s announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged caution.
“Although I am pleased the president has acknowledged that abandoning Afghanistan at this important moment would undermine the hard won gains of our armed forces who have sacrificed so much to protect our country since the 9/11 attacks, it is my strong desire that the administration revisit conditions on the ground in 2015 and 2016 to determine if a full withdrawal is warranted,” he said.
“The president can’t know what the situation will look like in Afghanistan two years from now,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “By announcing the next cuts this far in advance, the president’s plan won’t provide the stability that America’s service members and their families, who sacrifice and endure loss of life and health, deserve.”
A total of 2,320 American troops, along with another 1,100 from Britain and other contributing nations, have been killed in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces launched the operation in October 2001 to oust the Taliban. According to Pentagon figures, 19,772 American personnel have been wounded in action.