On Thursday President Barack announced plans to keep at least 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office in 2017 and hand the sensitive issue off to his successor. It is considered by many as another setback for the president in his quest to extricate the U.S. from more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That goal suffered a previous set back by the return of U.S. forces to Iraq last year to help fight the Islamic State, a military mission Obama has said will likely outlast his presidency. The winner of the 2016 presidential election will become the third American commander in chief to oversee the Afghan war.
Obama said, addressing the American people in remarks from the White House “I know many of you have grown weary of this conflict. As you are all well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war…I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
Originally the president had planned to withdraw all but a small embassy-based force from Afghanistan at the end of next year. Under the new $15 billion-a-year plan, the U.S. will maintain its current force of 9,800 through the majority of 2016, then begin drawing down to 5,500 late in the year or in early 2017.
According to a defense official, the president approved the highest number requested by commanders, with the greatest amount of flexibility. Also according to U.S. officials Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked Obama to keep the troops in his country when they met in Washington earlier this year.
Obama sees Ghani as a more reliable partner than former President Hamid Karzai, a leader who deeply frustrated the White House. Obama’s meeting with Ghani started a months-long re-evaluation of the U.S. role in Afghanistan in which military leaders argued Afghans needed additional assistance and support to beat back a resurgent Taliban and keep the Islamic State from using the country as a haven.
The U.S. forces that Obama spoke of on Thursday will continue with their current two-track mission: counterterrorism operations and training and assisting Afghan security forces. The troops will be based in Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, as well as bases in Jalalabad and Kandahar.
Officials said the drawdown to 5,500 would begin late next year or in early 2017, with the pace determined by military commanders. Obama said he wasn’t disappointed to know he’ll leave office with a war he pledged to stop still underway and White House officials said they were still pleased with the progress Obama had made in drastically reducing the number of U.S. troops from a high of about 100,000 in 2010 as well as ending America’s direct combat role.
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