US president to outline plans to keep 5,500 troops in country into 2017, having previously promised to end war on his watch
Barack Obama is to keep US troops in Afghanistan beyond his departure from office in January 2017, casting aside a promise to end the war on his watch.
The US president had originally planned to pull out all but a small, embassy-based US military presence by the end of next year, but is set to announce on Thursday that 5,500 troops will remain in Afghanistan. The move follows Taliban advances, including the takeover of Kunduz late last month.
Reporters were briefed ahead of the announcement by senior Obama administration officials.
It is at least the second time that the US has had to revise its exit strategy in the face of surges by the Taliban, who, as well as temporarily taking Kunduz in the north, control large swaths of the countryside.
The US defence secretary, Ash Carter, signalled the change in a speech on Wednesday in which he said: “The narrative that we’re leaving Afghanistan 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.”
The fall of Kunduz was a major blow to the Afghan government and the US military. The US-trained Afghan army, supported by US special forces, were unable to prevent its capture. The Taliban held the city for more than two weeks,only pulling back on Tuesday.
During the fighting, the US bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, killing 22 people, including 12 MSF staff and 10 patients.
Reporters were told that the present force of 9,800 US troops would remain throughout most of next year, being reduced to 5,500 in 2017. Apart from special forces on the ground with the Afghan army, most of the US troops are engaged in training roles, operating from bases in Kabul and in Kandahar in the south.
As well as the Taliban, the Obama administration has expressed concern about Islamic State fighters moving into the country and gaining recruits from within the Taliban.
The president’s decision to keep the US military in Afghanistan beyond his tenure thrusts the conflict into the 2016 presidential race. The next president will become the third US commander-in-chief to oversee the war, with the options of trying to bring it to a close, maintaining the presence as Obama left it or even ramping up US involvement in the conflict.
Until now, Afghanistan has barely factored into campaign discussions on foreign policy and was not mentioned in Tuesday’s Democratic debate. The war was discussed only briefly in two Republican debates.
Other Nato countries with troops in Afghanistan are likely to mirror the US extension.
Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan MP who has previously been critical of US plans to withdraw troops, welcomed Obama’s announcement. “It is not a choice” for the US to keep troops in Afghanistan, she said, “it is an obligation.”
She added: “The US has created a lot of problems for Afghans, ever since the Cold War, so it has a responsibility to help and support Afghans.”
Barakzai said that previous public announcements about reducing the US military presence had unwillingly bolstered the Taliban, giving the insurgents time to prepare the offensives carried out this year. Now, she said, the US needed to be clear about what exactly its troops were going to contribute to Afghanistan, with military power alone not sufficient.
“I believe the US should focus more on building the infrastructure of the Afghan economy. One main reason for the war is the poor economy,” she said.