'It’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,' Obama says

President Obama on Tuesday announced plans to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year ahead of a complete withdrawal of American forces by 2017.

“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said.

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The plan will be contingent on the Afghan government signing a status of forces agreement that gives U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. Without that, the U.S. will make an abrupt exit from the country, as occurred in Iraq.

Obama’s announcement was made after months of debate within the administration about how many of the 32,800 troops in Afghanistan should remain in the country after the official combat mission ends in December.

The final number represents somewhat of a middle ground between military officials who pressed for a minimum force of 10,000 without a set deadline and advisers such as Vice President Biden who advocated for keeping a few thousand troops at most.

Military officials argued that leaving fewer than 10,000 troops for training and counterterrorism missions would risk American gains and allow for a resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda. 

“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said. 

“Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies, but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who take the lead and ultimately full responsibility,” he said.

The number of troops in Afghanistan will be cut in half by the end of 2015 before shrinking to an embassy security force by the end of 2016.

Administration officials portrayed Obama’s decision as fulfilling his pledge to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as president.

“I think a key point here is that you have heard us say often over the last five years that we are winding down a decade of war,” said a senior administration official on a background conference call Tuesday. 

The president reiterated that message on Tuesday: “When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000,” he said. 

Supporters applauded the president’s plan. Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called it a “responsible path forward.” 

Others blasted the president’s decision to set a firm timeline for withdrawal, arguing it would allow the Taliban and other militant groups to bide their time.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Obama’s plan “doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically.”

“We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor polls numbers over our security,” McKeon said.

Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Afghanistan and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, said setting “rigid deadlines” for troop withdrawal “lets the insurgents and opponents plan.”

“I don’t think any one of the military advisers I know would believe that this is a course that suits the conditions in Afghanistan,” Cordesman said. “War isn’t being fought to a calendar.”

The president put a positive spin on his plan, arguing it would usher in a “new chapter in American foreign policy” that would allow the U.S. to “respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.” 

The president is due to deliver a major foreign policy speech Wednesday at West Point, where he is expected to address the administration’s future strategy to fight terrorism around the world. 

That next chapter will include more limited involvement in Afghanistan. 

While the president said the U.S. would “remain committed to a sovereign, secure, stable, and unified Afghanistan,” he said “we have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.” 

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2003, said the announcement that 9,800 would stay after 2014 is “good news,” and would provide “huge value” in continuing to train Afghan troops. 

“The good news is that the number is fairly substantial — it encourages Afghans that the U.S. isn’t going to pull the plug overnight,” said Barno, who is now a senior fellow and Responsible Defense Program co-director at the left-leaning Center for a New American Security. 

“It’s a punctuation mark at the end of 2016, if this plan unfolds,” Barno said. “It’s something the president can say happened ‘on my watch.’ ”

However, he said he is also worried that the timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops would signal to international allies when to pull financial aid.

“This takes us back to the 2009 West Point speech — I’m going to surge, but I’m going to pull them out. ... Putting a timeline on it undercut the value,” he said.

Updated at 8:17 p.m.