Obama reversing course on Afghanistan troop withdrawal

President Obama announced Thursday that 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016, a major reversal of his pledge to bring almost all troops home before he leaves office in January 2017.

“As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war,” Obama said in the Roosevelt Room. “Given what’s at stake in Afghanistan…I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”

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The president said the current force of 9,800 U.S. troops will remain there for most of 2016 before drawing down to 5,500 the following year.

The troops will train and advise Afghan military forces and carry out counterterrorism strikes against remnants of al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist forces that have gained a toehold in the country. U.S. forces will be stationed at bases in Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Obama’s decision ensures America’s longest war will last beyond his presidency, something he insisted is not a disappointment, despite a previous promises to end the conflict.

“This decision is not disappointing,” he told reporters. “Continually, my goal has been to make sure that we give every opportunity for Afghanistan to succeed while we are still making sure that we're meeting our core missions.”

Obama stressed the troops will serve in a non-combat role and portrayed the move as staying the course with a strategy to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a launching pad for another terrorist attack on the United States.

“This is consistent with the overall vision that we had,” he said. “We anticipated, as we were drawing down troops, that there were be times where we might need to slow things down or fill gaps in Afghan capacity.” 

The president’s original plan was to leave all but a small group of troops to protect the American Embassy in Kabul after he leaves office. Combat operations were formally ended in December 2014.

But Obama has twice altered that withdrawal timeline in the face of persistent Taliban attacks.

Obama acknowledged that Afghan security forces are not yet ready to protect the country from the Taliban on their own.

"Afghan forces have continued to step up,” he said. “At the same time, Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be.”

The Taliban recently took control of the key northern city of Kunduz, its biggest military victory since the war began in 2001, before withdrawing this week. Taliban forces have also gained strength in rural areas throughout Afghanistan and there is evidence that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants found save haven there.

Obama previously revised his withdrawal timeline in March, when he announced that the 9,800 troops would stay in Afghanistan through 2015, instead of being reduced by half.

For weeks, the White House has faced pressure from members of Congress and military officials to halt the current plans for a significant drawdown at the end of this year.

Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, urged a sustained military presence there during a congressional hearing last week.

Campbell warned members of the House Armed Services Committee that drawing down to an embassy protection force on 1,000 would severely hamper Afghan forces’ ability to fight the Taliban.

"There is no counterterrorism structure force in those numbers," he said.

Obama said his decision was made in consultation with his national security team, lawmakers, NATO allies and Afghan leaders.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has urged Obama to keep a significant U.S. troop presence in his country and Obama repeatedly praised Ghani’s government as a strong partner in the fight against terrorism.

The president indicated he could make further changes to the withdrawal timeline based on conditions on the ground.

"This isn't the first time those adjustments have been made and this probably won't be the last,” he said.

Obama also addressed U.S. troops who could be put back into harm’s way as a result of his decision, saying the deaths of Americans serving overseas "always weighs on my mind.”

"I do not send you into harm's way lightly,” Obama said. “But as your commander in chief, I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests.”

--This report was updated at 12:53 p.m.