President Barack Obama has decided to slow down the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, maintaining 9,800 military personnel into next year, nearly twice as many as previously planned.
Backtracking on a pledge to reduce troops numbers to 5,500 by the end of this year, the president announced the slowdown on Tuesday during a visit by Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani to the United States, his first since being elected in September.
Mr Obama's decision followed a request by Mr Ghani whose forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban in the war-torn country and are threatened by the establishment of cells linked to the Islamic State militants, which the US is attacking in air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back,” said Mr Obama at a press conference with Mr Ghani on Tuesday.
He said that troop numbers during 2016 would be decided later this year and that he is still sticking with his promise to withdraw all US troops – beyond the normal military presence assigned to high-risk US embassies – by the time he leaves office in January 2017.
The cordial relations shown between Mr Ghani and Mr Obama at their press conference on Tuesday marks a departure from the at-times fractious ties Mr Obama had with former president
The often fraught contacts made the process of the withdrawal of US troops, an election promise by Mr Obama, from the country’s longest war, now in its 14th year, much more complicated.
The US had, at peak, 130,000 troops in Afghanistan but officially ended combat operations at the end of last year.
Striking a chord of gratitude, the US-educated Mr Ghani told a joint meeting of Congress that the people of Afghanistan "owe a profound debt" to the US and the more than 2,300 American troops who were killed since operations began in October 2001.
He warned in his speech to Congress that IS and its allies pose a "terrible threat" in countries in western and central Asia and that Islamic State militants were already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan "to test for vulnerabilities".
Noting the financial cost of the war, Mr Ghani, at his news conference with Mr Obama, thanked US taxpayers for their sacrifices.
“Tragedy brought us together, but interests now unite us,” he said.
The non-partisan Congressional Research Service put the cost of US military operations in Afghanistan in a December 2014 report at $686 billion (€625 billion) since the September 11th, 2001 attacks.
US secretary of defence Ash Carter and secretary of state John Kerry said that the administration would ask Congress for support to grow Afghanistan's security forces from about 330,000 to 352,000 and seek a further $800 million to support the country.
Playing on the administration's thinking in the troop decision on Afghanistan is the experience in Iraq where Mr Obama's decision to pull US troops out in 2011 was blamed, in particular by his most hawkish opponents in the Republican Party, as a factor in creating a chaotic security situation from which IS rose.
David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who was the senior US commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, told The Irish Times that any threats from IS militant cells being established in Afghanistan would be watched and evaluated very closely by the US administration.
“That is a very troubling development and could have a big impact on the troop levels if that were confirmed,” said Mr Barno, who is now an academic at American University in Washington.