President Obama will soon face what is likely his last major decision on the war in Afghanistan, as the administration examines how many U.S. troops to leave there and what role they will play.
The issue will arise in coming days, as Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. presents the results of a 90-day assessment he has compiled since becoming the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan on March 2. U.S. military and administration officials have been hesitant to put a specific timeline on when decisions will be made, but there is broad acknowledgement that senior officials will be formulating some plans ahead of the Warsaw Summit, a meeting in July of NATO heads of state.
“We have routine meetings on Afghanistan, and I’m sure we will in the context of preparing for the Warsaw Summit,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a recent interview. “I think in the coming weeks there will be a lot of focus on Afghanistan.”
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak about internal policy discussions, also indicated the president is open to “possible modifications” to the U.S. military role in Afghanistan in order to best carry out the mission, protect deployed U.S. troops and address evolving threats.
“Any potential consideration would balance adjustments to how we currently execute our mission with our efforts to continue to develop the capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” the administration official said.
The issue comes at a complicated time in Afghanistan following the May 22 death of top Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was targeted by a U.S. drone strike in the western Pakistani town of Ahmad Wal, about 30 miles south of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. The Taliban have continued to clash with Afghan soldiers and police who are trained and advised by a U.S.-led military coalition, and the group holds territory in numerous parts of the country.
Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a senior military spokesman in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that Nicholson is “rapidly approaching the very end of the assessment period,” and will submit his assessment to senior leaders in Washington and they will determine what happens next.
“Because the assessment has not yet been formally submitted and General Nicholson has not yet concluded his private discussions with his chain of command, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment at this time,” Cleveland said in an email. But he added that Nicholson is “reviewing the current threat situation, the mission he has been given, the status of current/future operations, and the resources he has been provided.” The number of U.S. troops deployed and the authorities by which the Pentagon is allowed to carry out operations in Afghanistan are both part of Nicholson’s assessment.
Cleveland told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday in a briefing from Kabul that the Taliban has been particularly active of late in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, both of which are in the southern part of the country. U.S. Special Operations troops assist Afghan commandos on some “enabled operations” in those areas, working from a military installation in Kandahar province.
The United States currently has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They include about 6,950 of the 12,800 coalition troops involved in the Resolute Support advising mission and an additional 2,850 devoted to a separate but related U.S. counterterrorism mission known as Freedom’s Sentinel.
The number of U.S. troops is down from a peak of more than 100,000, the majority of whom Obama authorized to deploy in late 2009 as part of a surge in 2010 and 2011 to train Afghan forces and beat back Taliban gains. The United States began withdrawing troops afterward and once planned to remove virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
During the Obama administration, more than 1,750 troops have died there, including 22 since the beginning of 2015. Twelve of those were killed in action, dying in circumstances ranging from rocket attacks to insider attacks initiated by Afghan soldiers.
As the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated since the conventional U.S. combat mission there concluded at the end of 2014, Obama has shown a willingness to shift course. Last fall, Obama decided to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016 and 5,500 into 2017, ending his long-held plan to bring home most U.S. troops in Afghanistan before he left office.
Now, the question remains: In light of the current situation on the ground, will he push back the additional withdrawal of U.S. forces again, deferring it to a future administration?
The previous U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, told reporters as he left his command in Kabul earlier this year that the White House had approved a series of more aggressive measures that he had requested since fall 2014, including granting permission to strike the Islamic State terrorist group in havens it had established in eastern Afghanistan.
But Campbell also advocated taking a more aggressive role against the Taliban and predicted Nicholson would likely do the same. The Obama administration had largely resisted doing so until last month, when the strike on Mansour occurred. Obama said afterward that Mansour was “specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops” and that killing him sent a message that “we’re going to protect our people.”
The unclear nature of Obama’s plans for Afghanistan in the waning months has raised concerns on Capitol Hill, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a May 25 letter saying they believe Nicholson’s recommendations should be given “extraordinary weight” by the White House. The letter urged the president to announce any decision before June 8, when NATO will host a conference at which members discuss the number of troops they are willing to commit in the following year.
“A timely decision on U.S. force levels is necessary so that our allies and partners can generate forces and make appropriate pledges for the Resolute Support Mission in January 2017,” said the letter, signed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, and nine other senators.