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U.S. Troop Numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq Still In Flux

U.S. troops in Afghanistan

The U.S. was still adjusting the number of troops that will be committed to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq where their ground combat roles have ended, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

In Afghanistan, the additional 1,000 troops sought by Army Gen. John Campbell to bolster the new training and advisory force next year will come from the ranks of troops already in country and who will not be withdrawn by Dec. 31 when Operation Enduring Freedom officially ends, said Rear. Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

Kirby did not name the units from which the 1,000 troops will be drawn to augment the 9,800 troops authorized by President Obama to remain in Afghanistan after Jan. 1.

Campbell, the U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, has asked for the additional 1,000 troops to remain until NATO partners deploy their pledged numbers of troops to bring the total force to about 12,000-12,500. The extra U.S. troops would provide "space and time for our allies to come forward," Kirby said.

There was no timeline for how long past Jan. 1 that the additional 1,000 would remain in Afghanistan, Kirby said, and there also was no timeline for when the additional 1,500 troops requested for Iraq by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, would arrive in the country. The additional troops would boost the U.S. presence in Iraq to about 3,100.

The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act provided funding but "no troops have been given orders to go yet," Kirby said. He also said it was possible that fewer than 1,500 troops would deploy.

Currently, Austin's plan was to have 630 of the 1,500 troops in an advise and assist role with the Iraqi security forces, and 870 working as trainers, Kirby said. Obama has barred U.S. troops from a ground combat role.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO ceremonially ended their combat missions on Dec. 8 pending the official start of Operation Resolute Support on Jan. 1 under the Bilateral Security Agreement signed with the Afghan government earlier this year.

The new operation will primarily be a training and advisory mission but Kirby said that the U.S. contingent will include a counter-terror force to deal with threats to U.S. troops and their Afghan partners.

At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey on Monday, Obama told about 3,000 troops: "Even as our combat mission ends, our commitment to Afghanistan endures. We'll continue to have a limited military presence there because we've got to keep training and equipping Afghan forces, and we've got to conduct counterterrorism missions because there are still remnants of al Qaeda there."

The new mission in Afghanistan was fraught with peril but the new government of President Ashraf Ghani was "off to a good start," said Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We're still at the early stages of the story of the new Afghanistan," Crocker said at a Stimson Center forum, and "whether Afghanistan succeeds or fails has to do with us. It won't be easy, it will be possible," Crocker said.

Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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