Obama halts plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan

Decision not to end the US’s longest war marks an embarrassing volte-face

President Barack Obama decision follows  persuasion by military leaders that further support was required to resist Taliban forces seeking to fill the vacuum left by US withdrawals. Photograph: Getty Images

President Barack Obama decision follows persuasion by military leaders that further support was required to resist Taliban forces seeking to fill the vacuum left by US withdrawals. Photograph: Getty Images

 

United States president Barack Obama, backtracking on an election promise, will leave 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond his term in office, passing America’s long engagement in the country’s conflict onto his successor.

Ten months after symbolically declaring the end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan, Mr Obama abandoned his long-held goal of pulling out all troops by the end of his presidency in January 2017.

Mr Obama, who had promised in his 2012 re-election campaign to end the war, will slow down the withdrawal of troops, maintaining 9,800 troops at several Afghan bases throughout most of next year before reducing the number to 5,500 into the following year.

The decision not to end the US’s longest war by the end of his term of office marks an embarrassing volte-face for Mr Obama on a major policy issue, threatening to leave a stain on his presidential legacy.

He called his revised military strategy a “modest but meaningful extension of our presence” that sticks to the existing “narrow” missions of training Afghan forces and pursuing al-Qaeda militants.

It is the second time he has delayed the reduction in US troop numbers. Last March he said he hoped to have 5,500 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, reducing to a normal embassy presence in the capital Kabul by the end of 2016.

Months of discussions The latest decision was made after months of discussions with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, showing that, in contrast to the situation in Iraq, the US is leaving troops with the support of the country’s leaders.

The reversal comes following months-long persuasion by military leaders that further support was required to maintain territory won and resist Taliban forces seeking to fill the vacuum left by US withdrawals.

The Taliban has recently scored victories, taking over Kunduz, the first city in Afghanistan to fall into the group’s hands since 2001.

Mr Obama also noted that more al-Qaeda militants had entered Afghanistan from Pakistan and fighters linked to the Islamic State, the radical group in Syria and Iraq, had emerged in the country.

“In key areas of the country the security situation is still very fragile and in some places there is risk of deterioration,” he said.

Asked to describe how disappointing the move was, Mr Obama said that the decision was “not disappointing,” adding that it wasn’t the first time changes had been made and it probably won’t be the last.

“I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president. And as conditions improve, we’ll be in a position to make further adjustments,” he said at the White House.

Mr Obama’s U-turn is a setback for a president who promised the American electorate when he was seeking office that he would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring American troops home.

He has reduced American troops levels in Afghanistan from a peak level of 100,000 and withdrew all troops from Iraq, but had to send non-combat military troops back into Iraq in response to the rise of Islamic State.