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Obama Reverses Course On Afghanistan Withdrawal Plan

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in March 24.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in March 24.

WASHINGTON— President Barack Obama announced a dramatic reversal in the drawdown of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan, citing growing concerns about a Taliban resurgence and persistent doubts about Afghan forces’ fighting ability.

The U.S. president said October 15 the United States would maintain its current force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, then draw down to 5,500 troops in 2017.

He said troops still in Afghanistan after 2016 would be stationed in military bases at Bagram north of Kabul, at Jalalabad in the east of the country, and near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

He said their mission would remain the same -- to train Afghan security forces and to support Afghan-led counterterrorism operations.

He said the decision was made after consultations with his national security team and Afghanistan's government and was "not disappointing."

“My goal is to make sure that we give the opportunity for Afghans to succeed and to make sure we are meeting our core goals," Obama said.

He argued that the decision should be viewed as an adjustment to changing circumstances

“It’s not the first time that adjustments been made. It probably won’t be the last,” he said.

“Maintaining our current posture through most of next year, rather than a more rapid drawdown, will allow us to sustain our efforts to train and assist Afghan forces as they grow stronger, not only during this fighting season, but into the next one," he said.

The announcement is a reversal of Obama's previous position, which had called for bringing most American soldiers home by time he left office in January 2017 and leaving only a small, embassy-based, U.S. military presence.

It comes as the Taliban has shown newfound capacity and the presence of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan has raised concerns

In late September, Taliban fighters briefly took over the northern city of Kunduz in a surprise lighting assault against the provincial capital.

The capture of the city prompted the U.S. to launch air strikes to assist Afghan forces, but one U.S. strike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 24 people.

That air strike labeled a mistake by the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, and sparked calls for a war crimes investigation.

U.S. officials have hinted at a policy change for weeks, amid arguments by some U.S. military leaders that a drawdown of the current 9,800-strong U.S. force during 2016 would be too severe.

Others said Washington needs to provide more military assistance to help Afghanistan fight off a revived militant threat.

Last week, Campbell said he presented Obama with a range of options for keeping more troops in Afghanistan based on his view of what it would take to sustain the Afghan army and minimize the chances of losing ground to insurgents.

In his remarks, Obama alluded to the fact that U.S. forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 14 years now, and that Americans are weary about open-ended combat operations involving U.S. troops around the globe.

“I do not support the idea of endless war," Obama said. "And I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests."

“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,” he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on October 14 that announcements of a U.S. drawdown during 2016 "is self-defeating."

"We're not. We can't. And to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we've had to date," he said.

Last week, during a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Carter urged allies to remain flexible on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the size of the force should be based on security conditions rather than a fixed timeline.

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission at the end of 2014 following 13 years of war. Afghan troops have since been in charge of the nation's security, with support from U.S. and NATO troops.

But Afghan troops have struggled to suppress attacks by Taliban, Al-Qaeda militants, and fighters loyal to the Islamic State group.

The capture of Kunduz by militants highlighted serious deficiencies within Afghansitan's own security forces.

U.S. officials told reporters ahead of Obama's statement that the discussions on extending the troop presence began during Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Washington in March.

With reporting by AP and AFP