Afghanistan could be gripped by Iraq-style sectarian violence after the full withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2016, President Obama acknowledged in an interview airing Monday.
But, the president said, the U.S. ultimately cannot afford to keep a military presence there in perpetuity, and Afghan leaders must take responsibility for their own security.
In an interview with MSNBC airing Monday, Obama was asked if the sectarian violence gripping Iraq was reason to reevaluate his strategy for Afghanistan. Republican critics have charged that the rise of Sunni extremist groups in Iraq was partially attributable to the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011.
“No,” Obama responded. “I think that what we have done assuming that the Afghans sign a security agreement that gives our troops immunity — which the Iraqis declined to do — we’re prepared to have a residual force that helps to continue to train their forces, to continue to help stabilize the situation as you have the new government coming in.”
Last month, Obama announced that about 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and then gradually draw down over the next 24 months.
“Keep in mind that our goal in Afghanistan was to decapitate al Qaeda, which had carried out 9/11,” Obama said. “That has been accomplished. Now Afghanistan is a sovereign country that is going to have to deal with its own security.”
The president conceded “that doesn’t mean there couldn’t potentially be problems there, just as there are in Iraq.”
But, Obama said, “unless we are prepared to stay indefinitely in all these various countries — something we can’t afford and would involve over time accusations we were occupying these countries — at some stage, they’re going to have to take responsibility for working together.”
The president’s comments largely echo Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who told a Senate panel last week there was “no guarantee” that Afghanistan wouldn’t similarly descend into sectarian fighting.
"It is up to the people of Afghanistan to make these decisions, their military, their new leadership that will be coming in as a result of their new government,” Hagel said.