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Obama outlines plan for U.S. troops in Afghanistan

The White House today announced a plan to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, even after the "combat mission" ends this year.
A U.S. NATO soldier visits a market of Kandahar, Afghanistan, May 27, 2014.
A U.S. NATO soldier visits a market of Kandahar, Afghanistan, May 27, 2014.
"Last year marked a major milestone: for the first time, Afghan forces took the lead to secure their own country," he said. "And today, you're in a support role -- helping to train and assist Afghan forces. For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan. And by the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end."
The word choice matters quite a bit. The president didn't say U.S. forces will be gone from Afghanistan altogether; he said the U.S. "combat mission" will come to an end. In terms of boots on the ground, what specifically does that mean? Obama filled in some gaps this afternoon.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a plan to maintain 9,800 military personnel in Afghanistan after the American combat mission ends there this year, pledging that he will bring the war there to "a responsible end." [...] Obama said that the 9,800 figure would be cut in half by the end of 2015, and the American contingent would be reduced to "a normal Embassy presence in Kabul" by the end of 2016, as he is close to leaving office.

The current force stands at 32,000 American troops, which is itself about a third of where deployments stood at their peak.
If the "combat mission" is over, what exactly would 9,800 U.S. servicemen and women do in Afghanistan, presumably for the foreseeable future? According to the White House, the troops would remain focused on training Afghan forces and playing a support role in operations against al Qaeda.
That said, even those totals are not locked in stone.
Indeed, the plan the president announced today remains dependent on a diplomatic agreement with Afghan officials.

All of these deployments hinge on the United States' signing a security agreement with Afghanistan, which the administration has not yet been able to do. "We will only sustain a military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement," an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

If the White House had its way, an agreement on troop levels would already be in place, but Hamid Karzai has apparently been difficult to negotiate with.
That said, Karzai's tenure is nearly over -- his would-be successors, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, are poised to face off in a June 14 primary. Obama hopes to strike a deal with the winner, and by all appearances, that should happen.
For critics of the war, the president's announcement isn't a surprise, but it's not exactly heartening, either -- for many on the left the goal is to get out of Afghanistan altogether. Many Republicans are simultaneously complaining from the other direction -- Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who collectively have been wrong about U.S. policy in the Middle East in every possible way, issued a statement calling withdrawal a "monumental mistake."
It's safe to assume they would have had the identical response if the president had announced any policy short of a war without end.