When President Obama announced his plan to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, U.S. intelligence said it could be done safely. Now, intelligence and military leaders are privately warning that the U.S. counterterrorism forces could be needed there for much longer.
During the internal administration debate earlier this year over the way forward in Afghanistan, the CIA supported a plan to degrade al Qaeda to the point that America could withdraw almost all of its troops there by 2016. The responsibility of fighting al Qaeda would be left mostly to the Afghan and Pakistani militaries.
For a White House looking to announce a new policy to go to zero combat troops in Afghanistan by the time President Obama leaves office, the agency’s classified assessment was exactly what they wanted to hear. But the assessment ran afoul of military leaders, especially those responsible for Afghanistan, who had long advocated for leaving a residual force in Afghanistan past 2016, including a strong contingent of the special operations and intelligence personnel to pursue and press al Qaeda.