President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the United States will once delay the withdrawal of troops from what he called a “dangerous” Afghanistan.
The announcement that the U.S. will maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016 marks another delay in Obama’s plans for completing a withdrawal from the 14-year conflict.
The U.S. will maintain 5,500 troops after 2016 at a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.
Obama’s announcement likely will not change much about Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s contributions to the conflict.
Its Special Operations units, including a Ranger battalion and an elite Army aviation squadron, presumably would continue deploying to Afghanistan.
Small numbers of troops from conventional Army units at JBLM also could be pulled to Afghanistan. About 70 soldiers from JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division are in Afghanistan now, where they are part of a high-level headquarters supporting Afghan security forces in Kandahar province.
In remarks at the White House, Obama said U.S. troops are no longer involved in combat operations, but that a U.S. training force will remain as “our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures.”
He said U.S. forces will continue to be involved in two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces.
Afghan forces are beginning to step up, Obama said, but are “still not as strong as they need to be” to counter the Taliban, which has made gains in the country.
“In key areas of the country, the security is still very fragile,” Obama said.
The U.S. had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at the peak more than four years ago and combat operations formally ended in December 2014.
Obama has long said that he planned to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of 2015. He had wanted most troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017, except for a presence at the U.S. embassy and facilities.
In March, Obama said he would reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the end of this year. And he noted Thursday that the decision will mean that some troops will rotate back into the country.
“I do not send you into harm’s way lightly,” he said in remarks aimed at U.S. service members. “But as your commander in chief I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests.”
He noted Americans have “grown weary” of the war and that he opposes open-ended wars, but said that “given what’s at stake in Afghanistan,” he is convinced the effort will be worth it.
“If they were to fail, that would endanger the security of us all,” Obama said of Afghan forces.
Obama insisted the call to delay troop withdrawal was “not disappointing” to him, noting the U.S. is working with the Afghan government.
“We have clarity with what our mission is, we have a partner who wants to work with us,” Obama said.