President Barack Obama will announce Thursday a reversal of policy in Afghanistan, slowing plans to draw down U.S. troops and instead maintain a force of 9,800 through most of 2016, senior administration officials said.
His decision prolongs the U.S. role in that country's 14-year-old war and ensures he hands the conflict over to the next U.S. president, due to be elected in November 2016 and to take office in January 2017.
Obama had aimed to withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy based force at Kabul before leaving office. Under the new plan, troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and based at four locations — Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. The decision follows months of deliberations between Obama, Afghanistan's leaders, Pentagon officials, field commanders and White House advisers about how best to support Afghan forces, senior administration officials said.
“Those have been broad discussions, deep discussions, ones that have included the president's personal engagement and a number of very detailed questions from the president about our posture,” an official said.
The U.S. troops will go on training and advising Afghan forces, and also will focus on ensuring that any remnants of Al-Qaeda are prevented from posing a threat to U.S. security, the officials said.
“Our mission won't change,” an official said.
Russia's foreign ministry said on Thursday it doubted the U.S. decision to maintain its number of troops in Afghanistan would ease the situation in the country, RIA news agency reported.
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission after 13 years of war at the end of 2014, and Afghan troops have since been in charge of the nation's security, with help from U.S. and NATO troops.
But Afghan forces have struggled in assaults from Taliban militants, who briefly took over the northern city of Kunduz.
“Certainly we're watching and seeing how the Afghan security forces engage quite tenaciously in the fight in Kunduz,” an official said.
U.S. military and administration officials have been discussing a slower timetable since the March visit to the White House of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the officials said.
“The Afghan government is very comfortable with this commitment. They've been indicating a desire for this commitment for some time,” an official said.
Keeping 5,500 troops at four locations will cost about $14.6 billion per year, up from the estimated cost of $10 billion to keep a consolidated force at the Kabul embassy, the official said.
NATO allies also have indicated some interest in sustaining their presence, the official said. There are more than 6,000 non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan as part of the “Resolute Support” mission.