President Barack Obama said Wednesday he is ordering nearly 3,000 more U.S. troops than he initially intended to remain in Afghanistan until he leaves office, largely to help indigenous forces fight a still-potent Taliban.
The administration planned to bring force levels inside the war-torn country to 5,500 next year, continuing a drawdown that began when Obama ended the U.S. combat mission there in 2014. But Obama acknowledged Wednesday that the situation on the ground has forced him to alter course.
He trumpeted progress that U.S. and western forces have made in training Afghan security forces and equipping them with weapons to fight the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But he admitted those local forces are “not as strong as they need to be” to hold off Taliban forces in many areas.
Obama ticked off aspects of combat in which Afghan forces remain too weak — that list spanned most major parts of an effective fighting force.
He cited recent suicide bomb attacks the group has carried in recent months as an example of its continued lethality and ability to destabilize parts of Afghanistan.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious,” Obama said, flanked by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford . “Men, women and children are dying. Millions of Afghans have fled their homes, and many have been fleeing their country.”
The latter development is adding to a refugee crisis that includes those flooding into Turkey and Europe to escape fighting in Syria and parts of Iraq. To that end, the announcement was timed with Obama’s participation in a NATO summit later this week, where the refugee crisis and its ripple effects are expected to be discussed.
A senior White House aide said the administration expects the troop announcement “will be welcomed” by European allies.
Obama also described his decision as one aimed at preventing Afghanistan from becoming what it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States: a “safe haven” for terrorists.
While more American troops will stay longer than planned, Obama said the “narrow” mission he gave them in 2014 will not change. That means they will be training and advising local forces — but also assisting them, meaning sometimes fighting alongside Afghan troops, on counterterrorism missions, the president said.
“As commander in chief, I’ve made clear I won’t allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven,” Obama said. He described the review that prompted his decision, led by Gen. John Nicholson, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as “guided by the facts” and the situation on the ground.
“Maintaining forces at this level (8,400) will allow us to continue to provide tailored support” to help Afghan forces continue to improve,” he said.
The administration will have to seek additional funds from Congress to account for the slowed drawdown, officials said on a conference all that followed the president’s remarks. Those "talks" should begin soon, one official said.
The decision likely will be met warmly on Capitol Hill, but only lukewarmly by some GOP members who want Obama to do even more in Afghanistan.
On May 25, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz ., and nearly 10 other lawmakers wrote Obama asking him to delay the drawdown.
“[A] timely decision on U.S. force levels is necessary so that our allies and partners can generate forces and make appropriate pledges for the Resolute Support Mission beginning in January 2017,” McCain and his colleagues wrote. “We urge you to announce any changes to our current planned force levels ahead of the relevant NATO conferences, giving the strongest consideration to the assessment of your military commanders and to conditions on the ground.”