WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced at the White House Thursday that he will keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2016 and a lesser number into 2017 to sustain coalition efforts to train and strengthen Afghan forces.
Joining Obama at the podium were Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As part of a four-step plan that he said would best ensure lasting progress in Afghanistan, Obama said he would maintain the current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016.
Rather than reduce troop levels to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, Obama said the United States will maintain 5,500 troops and a small number of bases, including at Bagram and Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south.
The mission in Afghanistan will not change, the president said.
“Our forces … will remain engaged in two narrow, but critical, missions,” the president said, “training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorist operations against the remnants of al-Qaida.”
Obama said he decided on new troop levels after a request in March by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for continued support and following consultations with his national security team, international partners and members of Congress, and with Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
“America's combat mission in Afghanistan is over, but the commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” Obama said.
The final parts of Obama’s plan are to work with allies and partners to align the U.S. plan with their own presence in Afghanistan after 2016, and to continue to support Ghani and the national unity government as they pursue critical reforms.
“In Afghanistan,” Obama said, “we are part of a 42-nation coalition, and our NATO allies and partners can continue to play an indispensable role in helping Afghanistan strengthen its security forces, including respect for human rights.”
In a conversation yesterday with Ghani and Abdullah, Obama said, he told the Afghan leaders that their efforts to deliver progress and justice for the Afghan people will continue to have strong U.S. support. They also discussed American support of an Afghan-led reconciliation process, he added.
Said sanctuaries for the Taliban and other terrorists must end, the president said.
“Next week, I'll host Prime Minister [Nawaz] Sharif of Pakistan,” Obama added, “and I will continue to urge all parties in the region to press the Taliban to return to peace talks and to do their part in pursuit of the peace that Afghans deserve.”
Thursday afternoon at the Pentagon, Carter said Afghan forces have proven themselves capable and resilient fighters who can provide security for their nation.
“They have performed admirably this fighting season, the first for which the responsibility to fight the Taliban has fallen squarely on their shoulders,” the defense secretary said. “But Taliban advances in parts of the country underscore the reality that this is and remains a difficult fight.”
Afghanistan still needs help, he continued, and through NATO’s Resolute Support mission, the Defense Department is working closely with the Afghan national defense and security forces and the country’s security ministries to ensure they’re prepared to protect the Afghan people and set conditions for stability in the region.
“This extends beyond our U.S. military presence and includes the important financial commitments we will need to make in support of the Afghan security forces,” Carter said.
The U.S. military’s presence and financial sustainment will send a strong message to the international community that the United States is committed to Afghanistan and is intent on fostering long-term stability, he added.
“We anticipate that the U.S. commitment will in turn garner the commitment of other members of the coalition that U.S. forces have operated with,” Carter said. “I have already initiated consultations with key allies to secure their continued support for this mission.”
Over time, he added, “we will reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, but not our commitment to the country and its people.”
In a statement from Kabul, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Obama’s 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 added, “Our continued efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will benefit the entire region and in turn offer greater security for the U.S. homeland and Americans abroad and at home.”
Before Obama left the podium, he spoke directly to the Afghan people, to the men and women in uniform and to the American people.
To U.S. service members, the president said he doesn’t send them into harm’s way lightly.
“It's the most solemn decision that I make,” Obama said. “I know the wages of war in the wounded warriors I visit in the hospital and in the grief of Gold Star families. But as your commander in chief, I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation.”
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