Obama puts drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan on hold

President Obama on Tuesday announced the U.S. will delay the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to help Kabul fight the Taliban, ISIS and other extremist forces.

About 9,800 American troops will remain in the country through 2015, almost double the number initially planned. Obama said he remains committed to reducing the U.S. troop presence to a small number based in the capital of Kabul by the end of next year. 

“This visit is an opportunity to begin a new chapter between our two nations,” Obama said at a news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after meeting with him in the Oval Office. 

“We agreed to continue to keep in place our close security cooperation,” he added. “Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place.”

The pace of troop reductions in 2016 will be determined later this year, the White House said in a statement. 

Obama held a whirlwind day of meetings at the White House with Ghani; Vice President Biden and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah participated in some discussions as well. 

The decision came as the Obama administration grapples with how to handle the final drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and conclude the longest war in U.S. history. 

Initially, Obama planned to draw down the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year.

But Ghani and U.S. military leaders have requested an extended presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan while his new government builds up the capacity of its own security forces, which have been plagued by desertions and other disciplinary issues.

Afghan units have suffered heavy casualties over the past year as international coalition forces have scaled back their role in the country. 

Obama said his plan to conclude the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2016 "has not changed” and that U.S. forces will not transition back into a combat operations, which ended in 2014.

“We want to make sure were doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces success so we don’t have to go back,” Obama said. 

Obama also said that some U.S. troops "will be rotating back into Afghanistan for a few months" and could be in harm’s way.

In addition, two air bases that were previously slated to be closed — Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan and Jalalabad Airfield in eastern Afghanistan — will remain open through 2015, a defense official said Monday.

Ghani thanked the U.S. troops who sacrificed for his country, including those who have lost their lives.

"I'd also like to thank the American taxpayer," he said, for supporting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Almost all U.S. troops are now expected to leave Afghanistan by the beginning of 2017, aside from a small force of about 1,000 to protect the U.S. embassy and coordinate with the Afghans on security issues.

But there are concerns that a fast withdrawal could destabilize the country.

Ghani has warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is targeting his country, arguing it’s in the interests of both the U.S. and Afghanistan to prevent the group from taking hold there.

"We have the capacity to speak truth to terror," Ghani said. "They do not speak for Islam. We do."

Democrats and some Republicans applauded the president’s decision. 

"We cannot afford to see Afghanistan spiral back into lawlessness and re-emerge as a terrorist safe haven," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement released Tuesday. 

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement the new timetable is “the right decision in the effort to improve stability in the region.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans were less enthusiastic. He said in a statement that Obama "cannot repeat the mistakes he made that allowed for ISIL’s brutal rise in Iraq." 

I look forward to reviewing the specifics and hope the implementation of this announcement will meet the requests of our Afghan partners, our commanders on the ground, and bipartisan members of Congress," he said. 

The new Afghan leader is also trying to prove he can be a reliable partner for the U.S. during his first trip to Washington. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, frequently clashed with U.S. officials. Karzai refused to sign a security agreement before leaving office that would have determined U.S. troop levels after 2014.

Unlike Karzai, Ghani has adopted a unabashedly pro-U.S. stance. But he came to power six months ago after an election marred by allegations of fraud. His unity government has been wracked with dissent and questions remain whether it can keep the country safe and stable without heavy U.S. involvement.

Obama and Ghani also announced a $800 million economic assistance program that is tied to the implementation of certain Afghan reforms. The president also pledged additional financial support for a reintegration program for former combatants.

—Kristina Wong contributed to this report, which was updated at 4:57 p.m.