REUTERS - The United States will keep up to 1,000 more soldiers than previously planned in Afghanistan into next year, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday, in a recognition of the still formidable challenge from Taliban insurgents.
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Hagel, officially confirming a change in the U.S. drawdown schedule first reported by Reuters, said the additional troops were a temporary measure and did not change the long term timeline for withdrawing troops.
He said U.S. forces in Afghanistan could fall only to 10,800 troops, rather than 9,800 as originally planned. The additional troops could stay until the first few months of 2015, while agreements were reached with other coalition partners to fill the gap, Hagel added. "But the president's authorization will not change our troops' missions, or the long-term timeline for our drawdown," Hagel said during an unannounced trip to Afghanistan, his last as Pentagon chief.
Earlier, Hagel expressed confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to defend Kabul following a spike in Taliban strikes.
Hagel's visit followed the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001, and a particularly violent wave of attacks in the capital in the last two weeks.
It also came just weeks before the official end of the NATO-led combat mission and a sharp reduction in western forces.
"I have confidence that the Afghan security forces have the capacity to defend Kabul," Hagel told reporters before landing in Kabul, where he discussed security with Afghan leaders and U.S. commanders.
As of early November, some 4,600 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed in 2014, more than six percent higher than the same period of 2013.
Even as U.S. officials including Hagel praised the accomplishments of Afghan forces as foreign troops moved into a support role, the high rate of Afghan casualties is seen as unsustainable. It has also raised questions about their vulnerability when U.S. forces fall to about 10,800 next year.
U.S. President Barack Obama's drawdown strategy has attracted criticism, including from Republicans in Congress, who say hard-fought gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.
Hagel, who resigned last week under pressure, warned against drawing comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, saying Afghans want U.S. forces to stay. "Are there (security) gaps? Are there continued challenges? And threats? Absolutely," Hagel acknowledged, noting Afghanistan would still struggle with "pockets" of Taliban resistance.
The Taliban have become increasingly bold in their attacks and control several districts across a country where access to many areas is still limited by rugged terrain and poor security.
Afghan infrastructure is poor. Graft is rife. The economy relies mostly on foreign aid.