President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced he will keep US troop presence in Afghanistan at 8,400 until the end of his term early next year, and not 5,500 as planned earlier.
Their mission, however, will remain the same, Obama said in remarks from the White House: to assist and train local Afghan forces and going after terrorists.
“But maintaining our forces at this specific level – based on our assessment of the security conditions and the strength of Afghan forces – will allow us to continue to provide tailored support to help Afghan forces continue to improve,” he said.
The US force level, which was once 100,000, has been going down steadily since Obama ended the combat mission in 2014. It is less than 10,000 now, and was to go down further.
But not any longer. Announcing the upward revision, Obama said his message to the Taliban was that “the only way to end this conflict and to achieve a full drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban”.
This decision also, he said, “ensures that my successor has a solid foundation for continued progress in Afghanistan as well as the flexibility to address the threat of terrorism as it evolves”.
He added, “l firmly believe the decision I’m announcing is the right thing to do.”
The numbers reflect a compromise between Obama’s original plan and what many military commanders had recommended.
A Taliban resurgence led Washington to rethink its exit strategy.
Obama said the US mission will remain narrowly focused on “training and advising” Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda, the group that attacked the US on September 11, 2001.
“We are no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan,” he said. Still, he said, Americans serving in their more limited missions there still face serious dangers
Obama made the announcement alongside defence secretary Ash Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen Joseph Dunford.
Last month a group of more than a dozen former US ambassadors and former commanders of US forces in Afghanistan wrote to Obama, urging that he sustain the current level of US troops through the remainder of his term in office. They included Gen John F Campbell, who was the top US commander in Kabul until four months ago, and retired Gen David Petraeus.
“Unless emergency conditions require consideration of a modest increase, we would strongly favor a freeze at the level of roughly 10,000 U.S. troops through January 30,” they wrote in a June 1 letter. “This approach would allow your successor to assess for herself or himself and make further adjustments accordingly.”
Obama’s announcement will help shape his legacy. A president who came into office promising to end the wars he inherited, has instead found himself wrestling with continued conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan and new conflicts in Syria and Libya.
(With inputs from agencies)