In a development that will be welcomed by India, the US announced on Thursday it will stay in Afghanistan for longer than it had planned earlier, and with a larger troops presence.
The ongoing drawdown will stop, and the current force level of 9,800 will continue until the end of 2016, after which it will drop to 5,500, but with no cut-back deadlines.
This is substantially more than the US had earlier said it planned to leave behind after 2016 — only 1,000, and confined to Kabul, tasked solely with protecting the US embassy.
These forces stationed on three bases — Bagram, just outside Kabul, Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south — will remain in train and assist and counter-insurgency roles.
Announcing the new US military plan for Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said that despite significant progress “the Afghan forces are not as strong as they need to be.”
But the US won’t walk away this time. “By now it should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan’s progress the only real way to achieve the full drawn down of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settle with the Afghan government,” Obama said, indicating the strategy to wait-out the Americans, adopted by the Taliban and their backers, will not work.
Also, he added, sanctuaries for the Taliban and other terrorists must end. “Next week I will host prime minister (Nawaz) Sharif of Pakistan and I will continue to urge all parties in the region to press the Taliban to return to the peace talks” and do their part in pursuit of peace that the Afghan people deserve.
India will welcome the new US plan as it has long felt, and said publicly, Afghanistan is not ready to fend for itself yet, with extremists waiting to strike from sanctuaries in Pakistan.
India is also concerned about Pakistan moving to reoccupy space left behind by US pullout, as it did post 1989, turning Afghanistan into a hub for terrorists from all over the world.
The US rethink comes in the aftermath of recent gains made by a resurgent Taliban, who took the northern city of Kunduz inflicting heavy casualties on Afghans security forces.
The Afghans have since wrested it back, with the help of US airstrikes and special forces, but their vulnerabilities are now too apparent for the Obama administration to ignore.
Since taking the lead in security operations in 2015, with the end of US combat mission in 2014-end, Afghan forces faced their first fighting season on their own this summer.
While they were able to perform well in urban ares, their hold on the vast rural parts of the country remained fragile, allowing the Taliban to regroup and grab control, as in Kunduz.
While they have made considerable progress, they still have a long way to go on developing their capabilities, intelligence gathering, aviation and command and control structures.