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Afghan President Asks US to Freeze Troop Withdrawals this Year

Newly-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, arrives for an inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. Omar Sobhani/AP
Newly-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, arrives for an inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. Omar Sobhani/AP

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was expected to press the Obama administration to freeze U.S. troop withdrawals for the rest of this year when he visits the White House next month.

"Ghani asked to leave it flat this year" in recent discussions in Munich on U.S. troop levels, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a roundtable session with reporters Thursday.

Ghani said that maintaining U.S. troop strength at the current levels of about 10,600, rather than drawing down to about 5,500 at the end of 2015 under President Obama's original plan, "will give us the best chance to be able to further develop and defend ourselves," Thornberry said.

Ghani was expected to visit Washington at the end of March to meet with Obama, who has been considering several options on troop presence put forward by Army Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Under Obama's plan, U.S. troop levels would go down to about 5,500 at the end of 2015 and the military mission essentially would be over at the end of 2016, with the exception of a small residual force for embassy security, military sales and other duties.

Even before taking command last summer from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Campbell said he might make recommendations to alter the troop withdrawal plan based on conditions on the ground, but he has not proposed a change to the final withdrawal date at the end of 2016.

The White House has already gone along with Campbell's recommendation to keep an additional 1,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the start of 2015 to boost the number to 10,600. During the height of the war in 2011, the U.S. had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat missions in Afghanistan last year. The 10,600 U.S. and about 2,200 NATO troops currently in Afghanistan mainly have a training and advisory mission, with smaller units assigned to counter-terror operations.

In recent statements on the U.S. withdrawal plan, Ghani has urged the Obama administration to be flexible, saying that "deadlines should not be dogmas."

New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made Afghanistan the first stop last week on his first overseas trip as Pentagon chief to gauge progress in the U.S. effort to leave behind a democratic and secure state.

Following meetings with Ghani, Carter said "our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks. That is why President Obama is considering a number of options to re-inforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the time line for our drawdown of U.S. troops," Carter said.

"That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures to ensure that we have the right array of coalition capabilities to support our Afghan partners," Carter said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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Afghanistan Deployment