Obama to slow Afghan withdrawal

President Obama will slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as requested by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is visiting Washington, D.C., this week. 

Instead of drawing down the 10,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of this year, Obama will allow most of those troops to remain through 2015, according to a defense official.

{mosads}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, the official said. 

The slower drawdown is in response to instability in Afghanistan and calls for a longer U.S. troop presence from Ghani and U.S. military officials troubled by an increase in civilian casualties in the country.

Almost all U.S. troops are scheduled to be removed from Afghanistan by the end of next year, but there are new worries that the country could fall into deep instability without the presence of U.S. troops.

Ghani, who will speak to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, has warned that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has designs on his country, and argues U.S. troops can limit ISIS’s progress.

“From the West, Daesh is moving in,” Ghani said Monday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” using a derogatory Arabic nickname for ISIS. “There’s sufficient evidence that they were targeting us, because to their narrative, to their storyline, Afghanistan is central.”

ISIS sprang to life in Iraq as U.S. troops rapidly left that country, and Obama may be focused on preventing that from repeating in Afghanistan.

Still, while the drawdown will slow, administration and defense officials insist there will be no change to withdraw all troops except for those protecting the U.S. embassy by the end of 2016. That would leave 1,000 to 1,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“The goal that the president has set for the military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2016, the beginning of 2017 is one we have been pretty clear,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. 

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on Monday that the Pentagon would seek funding for 352,000 Afghan National Security Forces through 2017. The U.S. spent about $4.7 billion on training Afghan forces in 2014, and $4.1 billion in 2015 — down from about $11.2 billion in 2012. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement that they were encouraged by the slower drawdown but that they remained “deeply concerned” by reports Obama is sticking to the end of next year for the removal of U.S. troops.

“Such a course would put at immediate risk all gains achieved over thirteen years of war in Afghanistan,” they said in a joint statement. 

The two noted the deterioration in Iraq and rise of ISIS after the exit of U.S. troops.

“We must not repeat this mistake. But that is exactly what will happen if President Obama insists on withdrawing from Afghanistan whether the job is done or not,” they said. 

Administration officials on Monday were adamant that Obama would stick to the schedule to avoid drawing out the longest war in U.S. history even longer.

“Making a substantial commitment of U.S. forces to Afghanistan, again, is not in our national security interest,” Earnest said on Monday. “Drawing the United States into another land war in Asia is not in our best interests.”

Carter, who has been under pressure to slow the drawdown, emphasized at a Pentagon ceremony on Monday morning honoring Ghani that Afghans will have ultimate responsibility over its own future. 

“Afghanistan’s future is ultimately for the Afghans [to] grab hold off and for Afghans to decide,” he said. 

Ghani, for his part, profusely thanked the American troops, their families and taxpayers on Monday, and pledged that the Afghan government would not become a drain on the U.S.

“All of you who’ve made your hard-earned dollars available for Afghanistan,” he said, “because of it, the government of national unity … is committed to account for every single one of those dollars and pennies.” 

—Jordan Fabian contributed to this story. 

Tags Afghanistan Ash Carter Ashraf Ghani Barack Obama Iraq John McCain Lindsey Graham

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