The Obama administration is abandoning plans to cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by year’s end, amid requests from military leaders to keep more troops there, U.S. officials said Monday.
Although no final decision on numbers has been made, U.S. officials say, most of the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan are expected to stay well into next year.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Monday to extend the mandate of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan until March 17, 2016.
Nicholas Haysom, the top U.N. envoy in the country, warned the council Monday that while the group has not stuck “firm roots” in the country, it has the potential “to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally.”
An official announcement on U.S. troop strength is likely next week when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets President Barack Obama in Washington.
At Monday’s White House briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest would not comment on specific numbers. But he said, “I can tell you that the president … has been closely consulting with his national security team and with his commanders on the ground … about the proper pace of [the] military drawdown.”
Earnest added that, “by the beginning of 2017, the president envisions a scenario where our military presence in Afghanistan has been further and substantially reduced to a Kabul-centric presence that’s focused on protecting the embassy” and some “military coordination and cooperation.”
He said “that would represent a substantial drawdown in the number of troops than from what our presence looked like, even just a couple of years ago.”
American troop strength peaked at just over 100,000 in 2011.
There is no indication that Obama is ready to abandon his frequently stated promise to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term in January 2017. The president, who also pledged to end the war in Iraq, has had to send troops back there to help Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State militants.
The original plan Obama announced last year was to reduce the number of U.S. troops to 5,500 by the end of 2015 and to take out all but a routine, embassy-based security force by the end of 2016. The embassy security mission could include an estimated 1,000 troops.
Some members of Congress, including Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have expressed concerns about a sharp troop drawdown this year.
During a hearing in February, McCain said a lack of presence would create a vacuum and “allow terrorists to foment the same disaster in Afghanistan as we have seen in Iraq – growing instability, terrorist safe havens and direct threats to the United States.”