President Obama announced revised troop plans for Afghanistan on Wednesday, keeping 8,400 U.S. troops in the country when he steps down early next year, the clearest indication yet of his inability to end the long war there.
“I strongly believe that 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,” said Obama, speaking at the White House. He had hoped to leave a force of 5,500 in early 2017.
Obama, who came into office promising to end the wars started by his predecessor, has already changed his timetable for removing troops from Afghanistan several times as local forces struggle to contain a resilient Taliban insurgency.
There are now about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, tasked with a dual mission to support local forces and hunt down al-Qaeda and other militants. That’s much smaller than the force of about 100,000 stationed in Afghanistan during Obama’s 2010-2011 troop surge.
Speaking alongside Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama said the United States was no longer fighting a “major ground war” in Afghanistan.
But he acknowledged it would take more time for the Afghan security forces to build up the military capacity they need to combat not just the Taliban but a host of militant groups including the Islamic State.
He said only a peace deal would bring lasting stability to Afghanistan.
As part of current military plans, the United States will also maintain a series of bases across Afghanistan that will afford U.S. and NATO troops greater reach into contested areas.
Already over the last two years, Obama had given commanders in Afghanistan new powers to combat militants, an acknowledgment that the official end to U.S. combat operations at the end of 2014 did not signal a halt to the fighting.
The announcement comes several days before Obama attends a NATO summit in Poland, where leaders from across Europe will discuss the remaining challenges in Afghanistan.
Obama said a number of allied countries had already made commitments for future troop and funding levels for Afghanistan.