WASHINGTON — About 8,400 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan when President Obama's term in office ends in January, Obama said Wednesday, far more than the 5,500 he had previously promised.
The changing troop levels reflect a continuing readjustment of troop levels by Obama as he's struggled between competing goals of maintaining stability in the former terrorist safe haven while fulfilling promises to end the war by the end of his presidency.
By Obama's own admission, that's been more difficult than he expected. In 2011, he promised that all U.S. combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by the 2012 election. That deadline was delayed until 2014, and then 2016. Last year, Obama said that 5,500 troops would remain in Afghanistan at the end of his presidency.
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There were 9,300 troops in Afghanistan as of last month, when Obama sent a report on U.S. troop levels to Congress under the War Powers Resolution. At the height of the 14-year war, there were 100,000.
Obama said the troops remaining in Afghanistan would continue to be focused on training and advising the Afghan military and engaging in counterterroism efforts. He said he made the decision to keep more troops after receiving an updated assessment from his top commander there, Gen. John Nicholson.
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Obama announced the new troop levels a day before he is to fly to Warsaw for a meeting of NATO that will feature renewed discussion of the alliance's policies in Afghanistan.
Republicans had also opposed any further drawdown. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Arizona Republic during a visit to Afghanistan on Monday that 5,500 troops were "not enough to defend the country against the Taliban."
"As president and commander-in-chief, I have made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists again," he said. He also cast the decision as a nod to the next president, saying the troop level "best positions my successor to make decisions' about the future of U.S. involvement there.
Obama spoke to reporters in the was joined in the Roosevelt Room, flanked by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Carter, Dunford and Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, recommended the 8,400-troop level.
"The troop level adjustment he announced today, which I recommended after consulting with Gen. Nicholson, Gen. Votel and Chairman Dunford, will enhance our ability to continue progress on our two central missions in Afghanistan: strengthening Afghan forces so they can secure their nation and prevent its use as a safe haven for terrorists," Carter said in a statement.
The slower pace of withdrawal is coupled with new authorities that Obama granted Nicholson to attack the Taliban. Those changes were announced last month and allow Nicholson to order airstrikes in support of Afghan forces to tip strategic battles their way. Nicholson already has approved several such attacks against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
The freer hand in prosecuting the war — previously airstrikes were permitted for self defense, attacking al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, and coming to the aid of Afghan troops in dire straits — does not mean the air war will be expanded throughout Afghanistan, according to four senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the new policy.
The 8,400 American troops will be deployed much as the current force is, the officials said. Currently about 6,800 U.S. troops are involved in training and advising Afghan forces while 3,400 service members are conducting counter-terrorism missions.
Even at the reduced level, the U.S. forces will be able to advise Afghan forces in the field at the two- and three-star level, the officials said. They'll also be able to provide what the officials described as unique capabilities. Those generally describe spy aircraft, fast-moving attack warplanes, medical care and the ability to move large number of troops and equipment quickly.