Mixed messages on Afghanistan War

The Obama administration has delivered contradictory messages on whether U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, stoking uncertainty in Washington and Kabul over America’s strategic endgame for the 12-year war.

Since President Obama’s pledge to pull American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of next year, the White House and Pentagon have swung between a small U.S. postwar force to advise Afghan forces and a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

In public statements since setting the Afghan withdrawal deadline during a 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama repeatedly stated his administration’s goal of a complete pullout of American troops from the country. 

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“By 2014, this process of [withdrawal] will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security,” the president said in a June 2011 speech at the White House. 

A complete drawdown hinges upon Afghan national security officers assuming control of all combat operations from U.S. and NATO troops by 2014. But there are serious doubts that can happen smoothly.

“We’re starting [the withdrawal] … and we’ll be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014,” Vice President Biden said during a December 2010 appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” 

As the security situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate a couple of years ago, the White House abruptly changed its tone on its withdrawal plans and began floating the idea of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline. 

“We are not leaving if you don’t want us to leave. We plan on continuing to work with you, and it’s in the mutual self-interest of both nations,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in January 2011. 

A year later, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon was preparing for an “enduring presence” in Afghanistan after 2014. 

That force, according to Pentagon officials, would be responsible for advising and assisting Afghan forces while conducting counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

The White House and Pentagon are now coalescing around a U.S. force of 10,000 to conduct, advise and assist missions with Afghan forces. 

The back-and-forth nature of the administration’s Afghan postwar plan has riled lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“The administration has got to make a decision on what the force structure is going to be in Afghanistan,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a July statement on Obama’s Afghan strategy. 

“I believe that President Obama should signal to the Afghans and our allies what the post-2014 U.S. troop presence will look like governed by a security agreement,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that same month. 

Administration officials have pushed back against such criticism, saying the White House’s postwar plans for Afghanistan have been consistent.

“As the president has repeatedly made clear, we are going to end combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. We also are in discussions with the Afghans and our partners about a possible post-2014 mission,” White House spokeswoman Laura Magnuson told The Hill on Tuesday. 

“We still have work left to conclude the agreement, but we have seen important progress” in U.S.-Afghan postwar talks in recent weeks, she added. 

“Our strategy … has brought us to this critical period where now [Afghan military officials] can take the lead and the U.S. can transition to a supporting role,” in the country, a Pentagon official told The Hill. 

“We are also making progress on reaching a long-term arrangement with the Afghans that meets the security needs of both countries,” the official added. 

A huge obstacle in the way of a deal is whether American troops will have to follow Afghan law, a stipulation that Secretary of State John Kerry has opposed.

The muddled messages coming from the White House on its Afghan postwar strategy is consistent with the administration’s handling of postwar Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday. 

The full withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011 “turned out to be a classical failure,” McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. “That is why I am guardedly optimistic” on the final outcome in Afghanistan.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the Obama White House has maintained a clear focus for its post-2014 plans.

“I think the message has not been mixed. What [Obama] said is we have to have a [security] deal … because we cannot keep [U.S.] troops there without a deal,” Levin told The Hill. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has been against the war “since day one,” echoed Levin’s comments, noting that Kabul is partly to blame for the confusion in defining what role the U.S. should play after 2014.

“There [have] been mixed messages coming from the leaders in Afghanistan” as well as the White House on a postwar strategy, he told The Hill on Tuesday. 

— Haley Bissegger, Patrick Mortiere and Selim Koru contributed.