President Obama announced Thursday he will keep 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, in a stark reversal from earlier pledges to end the war on his watch — though Republicans still questioned whether the residual force will be enough to support Afghan forces and U.S. allies.
The decision follows months of appeals from military leaders to extend the drawdown timeline. And it marks an acknowledgement that, despite claims Al Qaeda is on the run, militants continue to pose a serious threat to the country.
Obama originally had planned to pull out all but a small, embassy-based U.S. military presence by the end of next year. But military leaders argued the Afghans needed additional assistance and support from the U.S. to beat back a resurgent Taliban and hold onto gains made over the last 14 years.
Under the new plan, the administration will keep the current force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, then draw down to 5,500 troops in 2017, at a pace still to be determined by commanders.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” Obama said at the White House, in announcing his decision.
The president stressed that he does “not support the idea of endless war,” but said Afghan forces are “not as strong as they need to be” and the Taliban have “made gains,” leading to a “very fragile” security situation in key areas of the country.
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