WASHINGTON – The U.S. will keep at least 5,000 military personnel in Afghanistan after 2016, according to a congressional aide, slowing the administration’s withdrawal timetable and likely ensuring that America’s longest war will endure beyond President Barack Obama’s term in office.
The change is set to be announced by the White House on Thursday, according to the aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss a private briefing. It marks the second time Obama has had to alter his schedule to wind down U.S. military operations following persistent Taliban attacks and setbacks in building up Afghan government forces.
The almost 10,000 U.S. military personnel now in Afghanistan were scheduled to be drawn down through 2016, with all but 1,000 troops pulled out by early 2017. Many Afghans have said that they won’t be ready to carry the anti-Taliban fight alone by the end of next year.
The Taliban have grown more brazen since the U.S. ended its combat duties last December, imperiling the fragile democracy installed after American forces invaded in 2001. In June, militants attacked the Afghan parliament, and two weeks ago they seized and held for several days the strategic northern city of Kunduz.
In a speech Wednesday in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at extending the American troop presence.
“It’s not a question of whether, but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan,” Carter said. “We understand that Afghanistan still needs assistance.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, whom Obama picked earlier this year as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a former top commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan and has warned against a hasty withdrawal of forces.
Republicans, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, have called on the administration to jettison its withdrawal schedule, saying keeping to it would leave the country vulnerable to the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic State.
The administration telegraphed a slower withdrawal earlier this year after appeals from U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Combat operations in Afghanistan ended in December after more than 13 years, making it the longest war in U.S. history. The 10,000 troops remaining in the country, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011, are primarily advising and training Afghan forces.
Obama’s original plan was to leave about 1,000 U.S. personnel in the country to protect the embassy and carry out limited operations.