AP – President Barack Obama's decision to slow the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan will be welcomed at the NATO summit this weekend, providing aid for allied forces in the country and bolstering U.S. efforts to get more pledges of support for the war from U.S. allies.
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Obama's move quells lingering questions within NATO about America's commitment to the ongoing conflict. And it will allow the U.S. military to expand its work with Afghan forces as they face a resurgent Taliban and a troubling presence of ISIS fighters in the country.
The president announced Wednesday that he will leave 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into 2017, rather than cut the force to 5,500 at the end of the year as initially planned.
Military commanders, members of Congress and allied leaders had pressured the administration to maintain the current 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. The issue will be discussed at the NATO summit in Warsaw, including U.S. plans to encourage allies to strengthen their commitments to Afghanistan, with more funding, troops, or other support.
Last month, NATO allies agreed to extend their Afghanistan training mission and keep troops in all four sections of the country in 2017. Those decisions shelved earlier plans to consolidate forces in and around Kabul next year, ending the current hub-and-spoke system.
The NATO decision, however, relied on the U.S. remaining in Afghanistan to provide security, logistics and other support for the allies, particularly German troops working with Afghan forces in the north and Italian troops doing the same in the west.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NATO allies last month that the U.S. would continue that support. But U.S. officials quietly acknowledged that maintaining that support would be difficult with only 5,500 U.S. troops, as Obama planned.
Obama announced last month that he was authorizing U.S. forces to once again conduct airstrikes against the Taliban when needed in critical operations, and that American troops would accompany and advise Afghan conventional forces on the ground, much as they have with Afghan commandos.
Doing all of that with 5,500 troops would be risky, officials said.
"It just thins you out enormously, and so you just end up with a multiple higher level of risk," said retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former NATO commander. "If you go down to 5,500 troops, your risk goes up vertically because your allies don't stay with you and because you have half the capacity."
Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, added that it would be hard to maintain the hub-and-spoke allied presence in the north and west without keeping at least 8,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Obama acknowledged the "precarious" security situation in Afghanistan during his troop announcement at the White House on Wednesday, saying he would not allow any group to use Afghanistan "as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again."
"It is in our national security interest — especially after all the blood and treasure we've invested in Afghanistan over the years — that we give our Afghan partners the very best opportunity to succeed," Obama said.
Obama came into office promising to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this decision ensures that he'll leave with the U.S. still enmeshed in conflicts in both of those countries while wrestling with new ones in Syria and Libya.
The president said the U.S. mission would remain narrowly focused on "training and advising" Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida, the group that attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11.
Republican leaders in Congress who favor a larger force said Obama's new plan was preferable to the old one, but they criticized him for not keeping the full 9,800. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the partial drawdown would increase the dangers for the remaining troops, calling it "more a political decision by President Obama than a military one."
Though Obama touted progress in Afghanistan, including better-trained security forces, the situation remains perilous, with Afghan battlefield deaths rising and civilian casualties hitting a record high.
Progress in stabilizing Afghanistan has been undermined by the resurgence of the Taliban, which were removed from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion but have lately stepped up their deadly attacks.