President Obama is expected to announce Thursday that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of his presidency. The move, on which we reported Wednesday, is a reversal of the president’s position that all U.S. troops withdraw from the country by the end of next year, but it comes as the Taliban continues to grow in strength, al-Qaeda remains in pockets, and the Islamic State gains ground in Afghanistan.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and others are quoting senior administration officials as saying the 9,800 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will stay there for most of 2016, before dropping to about 5,500 late next year or in early 2017.
The Obama administration had previously planned to reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan by about half, and then keep about 1,000 troops at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Under the new plan, the troops would be maintained at Bagram Air Field, and at bases outside Kandahar and Jalalabad, the newspapers reported.
Some of the troops who stay behind will train Afghan security forces and advise them; others will be engaged in counterterrorism operations.
At the White House briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Josh Earnest said that despite the gains made in the country, “there continues to be a terror threat emanating from Afghanistan.”
“It’s important in the mind of the president for the United States to preserve our counterterrorism capabilities inside of Afghanistan,” Earnest said.
As we reported Wednesday:
The apparent White House rethink has been prompted by a confluence of factors: The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz late last month, the group’s biggest prize since it was removed from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001; the fact the militants are more spread out across Afghanistan than at any point since 2001; the continued presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’s mountains; and inroads being made by the Islamic State, a group whose tactics and brutality the world is becoming increasingly familiar with in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
Even before the recent gains made by the insurgents, the Obama administration had been under pressure from the military, some members of Congress, and the Afghan president to rethink the original plans for a troop drawdown.
“Obviously, we’re mindful of the dynamic security situation, and we’re watching and seeing how the Afghan security forces engaged quite tenaciously in the fighting for Kunduz,” the Times quoted one senior administration official as saying. “But this posture and this number has all been under discussion for months.”
But continued involvement in Afghanistan comes at a cost: Despite being in the country for 14 years, and training Afghan troops—an effort that has cost $65 billion—Afghanistan remains restive. The inability of Afghan security forces to hold onto Kunduz in the face of a long-planned Taliban onslaught, and their retaking of the city only with U.S. help are only likely to raise more questions about what the U.S. hopes to achieve past 2016.