OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Obama announces Afghan troop drawdown

THE TOPLINE: Ending months of anticipation, President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to under 10,000 after the combat mission there ends in December 2014.

A small troop presence of 9,800 will remain to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. That number would go down by roughly half over the course of 2015, Obama announced, and withdrawn by the end of 2016 — roughly coinciding with the end of the president’s own second term. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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,” the president said at a press conference Tuesday. 

The ending of the Afghan war and the bringing home of U.S. troops there would mark the fulfillment of Obama’s goal to end both the Iraq and Afghan Wars. 

The president campaigned on ending the Iraq war and devoting more resources to the conflict in Afghanistan. He ordered a 30,000 U.S. troop surge in 2009, but announced American forces would begin drawing down in 2011. 

Administration officials said the strong performance of local troops in taking a security lead, as well as the successful first round of the Afghan election contributed to the president’s decision. 

A runoff election is scheduled to take place in several weeks between the top two Afghan presidential candidates. 

“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 added.

Supporters applauded the president’s decision to wind down the war.

Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: Esper officially nominated for Defense secretary | Pentagon silent on Turkey getting Russian missile system | House, Senate headed for clash over defense bill House and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called it a "responsible path forward." 

However, others criticized the president’s decision to announce the timeline by which the 9,800 forces would depart, arguing it allows the Taliban to calculate and plan attacks.

“When you set rigid deadlines... in effect it lets the insurgents and opponents plan,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2003, said the announcement that troops would stay after 2014 was “good news,” and would provide “huge value” in training 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 Response Defense Program co-director at the left-leaning Center for a New American Security. 

He cautioned, though, that he was worried that the timeline for withdrawal 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 then out, where putting a timeline on it undercut the value,’” he said.

HASC REACTS: The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee responded to the announcement of the envisioned troop drawdown along predictably partisan lines.

In a statement, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said that although he was “pleased the White House met the military’s request” to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan past 2014, “holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically.”

He urged the president to remember that soldiers are in Afghanistan because it was the “spawning ground of al-Qaeda” and where the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack was hatched.

“Those threats still exist,” McKeon said.

Democratic Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the panel’s ranking member, applauded the president’s decision

“We cannot and should not continue to maintain a large presence in Afghanistan forever, but we also cannot overlook out national security interest in the region,” he said in a statement.

Smith called on the Afghan government to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow U.S. troops to operate in the country past 2014.

VA HEARING: The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will hold a hearing Wednesday on the alleged manipulation of appointment records at Veterans Affairs clinics that may have resulted in patient deaths. 

The announcement by committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) came after he expressed suspicions that the agency had something to hide. A congressional subpoena for information on the issue unearthed only 200 emails from Thomas Lynch, an assistant deputy under secretary at the VA. 

Miller said he had asked for emails and documents between VA heads, including Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiBill HR 2333 is a good step to helping curb veteran suicide  Senate confirms Trump's VA pick despite opposition from some Dems Trump VA pick boosts hopes for reform MORE, about the department’s alleged destruction of a document he suspects could be a “secret” list from a Phoenix VA facility that may have led to patient deaths. 

Lynch, Joan Mooney, a VA assistant secretary, and Michael Huff, a congressional relations officer, are scheduled to appear before the committee. The committee intends to subpoena the witnesses if they do not appear. 

PROTECTING PERSONNEL: A bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers urged fellow members not to cut the Pentagon’s civilian workforce in a bid to achieve savings.

In a pair of “Dear Colleagues” letters delivered last week, the group wrote that rumored proposals to slash the Defense Department’s civilian personnel “demonstrates a lack of understanding of DOD’s missions and the kind of work necessary to meet those requirements.”

“Quite simply, DOD could not perform its missions without its experienced and dedicated civilian workforce” which numbered around 807,000 in 2011, lawmakers wrote.

The letters could be a preemptive effort as the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee is set to take up its 2015 spending bill.

The bipartisan group asked colleagues to focus on the “real drivers” behind the tight budget climate.

“Sequestration threatens our national security – it is the enemy,” they said.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-White House to probe outing of CIA station chief

-Bill would ensure access to VA hospice care

-Bomb keeps weapons team from gas strike site

-Biden on VA: ‘We’re behind right now’

-China accuses US of ‘unscrupulous’ spying

 

Please send tips and comments to Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com, and Martin Matishak, mmatishak@thehill.com

Follow us on Twitter: @thehill, @kristina_wong, @martinmatishak