Pentagon: Afghanistan withdrawal on schedule

The Pentagon on Monday said it is not changing the timeline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan.

The timeline of removing all U.S. troops by the end of 2016 remains in place, the Pentagon said, though the U.S. commander will have flexibility to change the pace of the withdrawal.

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“There's simply no adjustment to the milestones. But I think what's most important is that Gen. [John] Campbell has flexibility within those milestone to flow forces out at the pace that he sees most appropriate based on conditions on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

Warren said that by the end of this year, most U.S. forces will be in Kabul and Bagram. By the end of next year, the only U.S. troops will be those based at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

The president announced last May that 9,800 U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ended in December, to continue training, assisting and advising Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. 

That amount was adjusted to 10,800 through early spring, until coalition partners could take their place. But the U.S. troop presence is still scheduled to roughly halve by the end of this year to 5,500, and go down to an embassy presence of 1,000 by the end of next year. 

The exact roles of the 1,000 troops post-2016 have not yet been determined, said a spokesman to Gen. Campbell. Possible roles will include embassy security, counterterrorism forces, and officials working on Foreign Military Sales to Afghanistan. 

In a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said deadlines “should not be dogmas,” and suggested that the U.S. should reconsider withdrawing all troops by 2017. 

“If both parties or, in this case, multiple partners, have done their best to achieve the objectives and progress is very real, then there should be willingness to re-examine a deadline,” Ghani said. 

His comments come as the Taliban has staged high-profile attacks around Kabul and throughout Afghanistan.

Although the combat mission has ended, U.S. troops could still find themselves in combat situations. They can engage enemy forces to protect themselves or Afghan forces, provide close air support for Afghan troops, conduct counterterrorism missions, and target individuals who pose a threat or provide direct support to Al Qaeda. 

The White House stressed on Monday that the U.S. combat mission has ended, and that Afghans are now in charge of their own security. 

“What the president has been really clear about is what our strategy in Afghanistan is, that after the end of the year, we're now in a situation where the combat mission in Afghanistan for U.S. military personnel has ended,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. 

“The Afghans are now solely responsible for the security of their country,” he said.