US President Barack Obama will announce Thursday that thousands of US troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2017, the tough reality of that war-wracked nation scuppering a defining election campaign promise.
Obama will announce that a 9,800-strong US force will be deployed throughout much of next year, effectively bequeathing a vexed 14-year war he inherited from George W. Bush to his successor.
Coming to office in 2009, Obama had pledged to end the war that has now has cost over 2,000 US lives and injured and maimed tens of thousands of other people.
But now, by late next year or early 2017 when Obama steps down and the 45th US president is sworn in, troop numbers are expected to be about 5,500, a senior administration official said.
Americaâ€™s “longest war” — one prompted by the Taliban refusal to surrender Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks — will continue.
Under previous plans, the United States would have drawn down its troop numbers by the end of 2016 from about 10,000 currently to about 1,000.
Recent intense fighting has underscored the continued role of American troops in training the still fledgling Afghan forces and in vital counterterror operations.
Two weeks ago the Taliban scored their biggest military victory since the 2001 US-led invasion, capturing the city of Kunduz.
Only a swift response by US-trained Afghan security forces led to an eventual Taliban retreat.
– Extensive review –
The administration official said Obama was making his announcement “as a result of an extensive, months-long review, and in consultation with his full national security team and our Afghan partners.”
The 5,500 troops that will remain late next year or in early 2017 will stay at a small number of bases, including at Bagram Airfield — the largest US military base in the country — Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.
But the official stressed that the troops would not have a combat role.
“This announcement in no way changes the fact that our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, and we will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners,” the official said.
The NATO coalition said Tuesday that US and Afghan forces carried out one of their largest joint operations in southern Kandahar province, dismantling a major Al-Qaeda sanctuary in the Taliban’s historic heartland.
The news on the troop deployment came after a series of setbacks, including a US air strike on October 3 on a hospital in Kunduz run by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 14 staff and 10 patients, with nine others still unaccounted for.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday foreshadowed the announcement, saying it was important for the United States “to formulate options for 2016 and beyond and make adjustments to the planned US presence based on current circumstances.”
“It’s important to say these things because the narrative that we’re leaving Afghanistan is self-defeating,” Carter told an Army conference in Washington.
“We’re not, we can’t, and to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we’ve had to date,” Carter said.
NATO forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001.
Though the United States represents by far the largest contingent, Carter last week said several NATO defense ministers told him they were open to modifications to current plans.