WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has announced a dramatic reversal in the drawdown of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan, citing growing concerns about a Taliban resurgence and persistent doubts about Afghan forces' fighting ability.
The U.S. president said on October 15 the United States would maintain its current force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, then draw down to 5,500 troops in 2017.
He said their mission would remain the same -- to train Afghan security forces and to support Afghan-led counterterrorism operations -- and that the policy shift was made after consultations with his advisers and with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
"The decision is not disappointing," he said. "My goal is to make sure that we give the opportunity for Afghans to succeed and to make sure we are meeting our core goals."
Obama, whose term ends in January 2017, had pledged throughout his administration to bring an end to U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, but circumstances in both countries have vexed those efforts.
His previous policy in Afghanistan had called for bringing most U.S. soldiers home by the time he left office, leaving only a small military presence at the embassy in Kabul. Currently, there are about 17,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including both U.S. and NATO forces.
"It's not the first time that adjustments been made. It probably won't be the last," he said.
"Maintaining our current posture through most of next year, rather than a more rapid drawdown, will allow us to sustain our efforts to train and assist Afghan forces as they grow stronger, not only during this fighting season, but into the next one," he said.
He said troops still in Afghanistan after 2016 would be stationed in military bases at Bagram north of Kabul, at Jalalabad in the east of the country, and near Kandahar in the south.
The announcement comes as the Taliban has shown newfound fighting capacity and the presence of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan has raised further concerns.
In late September, Taliban fighters briefly took over the northern city of Kunduz in a surprise lightning assault on the provincial capital.
The capture of the city prompted the United States to launch air strikes to assist Afghan forces, but one U.S. strike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 24 people.
That air strike was labeled a mistake by the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, and sparked calls for a war crimes investigation.
U.S. officials have hinted at a policy change for weeks, amid arguments by some U.S. military leaders that a drawdown of the current U.S. force during 2016 would be too severe.
Others said Washington needed to provide more military assistance to help Afghanistan fight off a revived militant threat.
Last week, Campbell said he presented Obama with a range of options for keeping more troops in Afghanistan based on his view of what it would take to sustain the Afghan National Army and minimize the chances of losing ground to insurgents.
In his remarks, Obama alluded to the fact that U.S. forces had been fighting in Afghanistan for 14 years, and that Americans were leery of open-ended combat operations involving U.S. troops around the globe.
"I do not support the idea of endless war," Obama said. "And I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests."
"Yet given what's at stake in Afghanistan, and the opportunity for a stable and committed ally that can partner with us in preventing the emergence of future threats, and the fact that we have an international coalition, I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort," he said.
Speaking to reporters after Obama spoke, White House advisers explained the reversal in part by noting the difficulties that Washington had in working with Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
"That really is a function of having a capable and willing partner who has invited us in. That was not the case [previously]. We didn't have the national unity government formed, we didn't have the bilateral security agreement," said Lisa Monaco, the White House homeland security adviser.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on October 14 that announcements of a drawdown during 2016 "is self-defeating."
"We're not. We can't. And to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we've had to date," he said.
Last week, during a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Carter urged allies to remain flexible on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the size of the force should be based on security conditions rather than a fixed timeline.
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission at the end of 2014 following 13 years of war. Afghan troops have since been in charge of the nation's security, with support from U.S. and NATO troops.
But Afghan troops have struggled to suppress attacks by Taliban, Al-Qaeda militants, and fighters loyal to the Islamic State group.
The capture of Kunduz by militants highlighted serious deficiencies within Afghanistan's own security forces.
U.S. officials told reporters ahead of Obama's statement that the discussions on extending the troop presence began during Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Washington in March.
With reporting by AP and AFP