US to hold off on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Washington (dpa) – The US will extend its military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, President Barack Obama announced Thursday, revealing a major policy shift from the planned withdrawal of most troops.

Obama said the slower withdrawal of US troops will provide the best chance to achieve lasting progress amid a security situation that is “still very fragile” and risks of deterioration in some places.

The US will maintain 9,800 troops in the country through most of next year, the president said. Beginning in 2017, Washington will reduce its presence to 5,500 troops at several bases in the war-torn country, including Bagram, Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south.

Obama’s decision is seen as a concession that Afghanistan has not been able to stabilize its security situation in the face of the Taliban, forcing the president to reverse his plan to withdraw most US forces by the end of his term and end America’s longest war.

The move to extend US presence in Afghanistan follows the Taliban’s siege of the key northern city of Kunduz on September 28, which represented the group’s biggest victory since its removal from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Obama stressed that the US mission in Afghanistan will remain focused on training Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations, calling the move a “modest but meaningful extension.”

“I do not support the idea of endless war,” he said. “Yet, given what’s at stake in Afghanistan and the opportunity for a stable and committed ally that can partner with us in preventing the emergence of future threats, and the fact that we have an international coalition, I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”

Obama had previously aimed for only a small military presence of around 1,000 troops based at the US embassy in Afghanistan by the end of next year.

The move demonstrated the ongoing US commitment to Afghanistan even after the conclusion of formal combat operations and reflected US confidence in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his government, Obama said.

The Afghan government welcomed the move as a means “to secure the progress we have made in the past decade, and two, to ensure success against our common fight against international extremism and terrorism,” said Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Obama spoke with Ghani and Abdullah on Wednesday to tell them of his decision and to discuss the need for good governance and an Afghan-led reconciliation process with the Taliban.

US officials stressed that the Afghan government was a willing partner in the decision and had requested further US assistance, contrasting with the 2011 withdrawal of forces from Iraq after Washington and Baghdad failed to come to an agreement on how troops would operate in the country.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Obama’s announcement, saying in a statement that it “paves the way for a sustained presence by NATO allies and partners in Afghanistan.”

The alliance will take “key decisions” about the scope of its Afghan mission in the coming weeks, he added.

US diplomats and defence officials have been in talks with NATO allies about what their contributions will entail, but Washington expects its allies will also provide additional troops beyond 2016, said Laurel Miller, US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, who earlier this month pushed for the troops to continue their stay in Afghanistan, welcomed the decision by the US president.

The decision “provides us the ability to further develop a lasting strategic relationship with our Afghan partners and allows us to counter the rise of violent extremism in a volatile part of the world,” he said in a statement.

The NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December, but nearly 10,000 US troops remain, including some 6,800 in the NATO support mission, along with others engaged in US-specific missions such as counterterrorism.

The extension of US operations leaves the ultimate withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to the next president following November 2016 elections. The White House sought to downplay suggestions the extension marked a failure of Obama’s goal throughout his presidency to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The scale of the challenges the next president will face are much smaller than this country faced when Barack Obama took office in 2009,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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