Nearly 10,000 troops could stay in Afghanistan post 2014, WH says


McClatchy Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama today will announce that 9,800 U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan for another year to help train Afghan forces even as the U.S. looks to close out combat operations in the country by the end of the year, a White House official said.

Obama will make the announcement about the next steps in winding down the war at 2:45 p.m. from the Rose Garden. He will announce that the U.S. combat mission will be over by the end of 2014, but that the U.S. would remain to train Afghan forces and support operations against what the White House called “the remnants” of al Qaeda.

Military forces will stay only if Afghanistan agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., the senior administration official said. Outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to do so, but the White House noted that the two candidates competing in a June 14 run-off election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, both said they plan to sign the agreement if elected.

Another senior administration official said both said they’d sign the agreement within days of taking office and that their assurances, along with other developments, gave Obama “the confidence” to make the announcement. Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron about his plans.

House Speaker John Boehner said he welcomed Obama’s decision to keep a training and counter terrorism force in Afghanistan, saying that after a recent visit to the country, he believed the biggest challenge for the U.S. would be “quitting just short of the goal line.

“The proposed missions are worthy of support, and I hope moving forward that the president will make a strong, robust case to the American people,” Boehner said.

Assuming an agreement was signed, there would be 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country by the start of 2015, along with NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, the U.S. presence would be reduced by roughly half, consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield.

By the end of 2016, the U.S. would draw down to a “normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul,” as it has done in Iraq, the official said. U.S. troops now number fewer than 34,000 – well below the 100,000 U.S. troops at the height of the surge.

The announcement comes two days after Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to visit with U.S. troops, saying that for many it would be their last tour in the country.

“By the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over,” Obama said Sunday at Bagram Air Base. “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”

Still, he pledged that U.S. commitment to Afghanistan would continue under a strategic partnership and that the U.S. is prepared to help train and equip Afghan forces to targeting al Qaeda.

“After all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win,” Obama told the troops. “And we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country.”

General Joe Dunford, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, that the U.S. needs to keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops to train Afghan forces if it wants to maintain the progress it has made in thwarting al-Qaida.

Senior administration officials said they’ve seen continuing progress among security forces in Afghanistan, but added “we don’t want al-Qaida to regenerate.”

“We are going to continue to be vigilant,” the administration official said. The official said the advisors will help the Afghan forces become “more professional.”

Senior administration defended providing a time line for withdrawal, saying it was “necessary to have the clarity for the Afghans.”

Obama will deliver broader remarks on foreign policy tomorrow at West Point.

“He wants to be very clear about the next chapter of American leadership in the world,” the senior administration official said.

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