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US to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan at year’s end

Remaining troops will focus on training Afghan forces, but experts eye the decision with skepticism

The United States will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in December and then will scale back most of those forces by the end of 2016, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday.

The two-year plan is contingent on the Afghan government signing a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. While outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign the agreement, U.S. officials are confident that either candidate seeking to replace him would give his approval.

The plan calls for the U.S. military to draw down from its current force of 32,000 to 9,800 by the start of next year. Those troops, dispatched throughout Afghanistan, would focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan security forces. They would not be engaged in combat missions.

"Our objectives are clear: disrupting threats posed by Al-Qaeda, supporting Afghan security forces and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own," President Barack Obama said in a speech at the White House on Tuesday. 

Ahead of Obama's speech, senior security officials said, “We never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan against the Taliban." They added a “long-term solution” to the Afghan national security situation would involve Afghan forces, which would be trained in counterterrorism tactics to reduce threats “in Afghanistan, Pakistan, all the way to the Sahel.”

Anand Gopal, a fellow at the New America Foundation, said the U.S. withdrawal would be largely inconsequential. The prospects for the move spurring any movement toward peace talks are fragile, he said, and — in agreement with the senior security officials — “violence is likely to continue.”

“It’s not like the Taliban are going to be backed against the wall and forced to come to the table,” Gopal said. “The withdrawal is really a continuation of the war, but in a different form. Everyone that’s fighting the Taliban are people we’ve propped up and funded, so in many ways it’ll be the same as the past 20 years. The only difference is that people here won’t hear about it, because it’s not Americans dying.”

Over the course of 2015, the number of troops would be cut in half to about 4,900 and consolidated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. Those remaining forces would largely be withdrawn by the end of 2016, with fewer than 1,000 remaining behind to staff a security office in Kabul.

The U.S. forces will likely be bolstered by a few thousand NATO troops. The total NATO presence, including U.S. troops, is expected to be around 12,000 at the start of next year.

Obama made the announcement at the White House, after returning from a surprise weekend trip to Afghanistan, where he met with U.S. commanders and American forces serving in the closing months of America's longest war.

Obama was expected to speak with Karzai ahead of his remarks on Tuesday. The two leaders did not see each other while Obama was in Afghanistan, but they did speak by phone as Air Force One was returning to Washington.

Obama has also discussed his plans with several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Germany and Italy have said they will continue as lead nations in the north and west of Afghanistan, and there has been some discussion that the U.S. would also have some troops in those areas to work with the allies.

At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war, and thousands more have been wounded. The number of Afghan victims is estimated to be much higher.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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