President Obama altered his Afghanistan withdrawal plan Tuesday by keeping the number of U.S. troops at 9,800 but sticking to his goal of lowering that number to about 1,000 by 2017.
Obama said Wednesday at a White House news conference with new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the drawdown would be halted only temporarily and the timeline to reduce the U.S. troop presence to embassy security in Kabul and other duties "remains the end of 2016."
"That hasn't changed," Obama said.
The U.S. president had said he wanted to reduce the U.S. troop presence to 5,500 by the end of 2015, but the withdrawal schedule was changed to allow for "flexibility" to counter threats at the urging of Ghani and Army Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Obama acknowledged that the new plan for 2015 would involve keeping some troops in Afghanistan longer than they had expected.
"This will mean that there's going to be some of our folks in Afghanistan under the new schedule (who) will not be going home" as soon as they thought they would, Obama said."We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to make sure Afghan security forces succeed so that we don't have to go back."
On Monday, a U.S. official told Reuters that the plan under consideration likely would mean that U.S. bases in Afghanistan in southwestern Kandahar and in eastern Jalalabad would remain open at least through the end of this year.
"The specific trajectory of the 2016 U.S. troop drawdown will be established later in 2015 to enable the U.S. troop consolidation to a Kabul-based embassy presence by the end of 2016," according to a joint statement released by Obama and Ghani.
Obama's announcement of resolve to stick with a date for a final withdrawal from Afghanistan drew criticism from Republican lawmakers.
In a joint statement Monday, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that "we are deeply concerned by reports that the administration is holding to an arbitrary calendar date for its significant drawdown plan for next year, rather than one based upon conditions on the ground."
"Such a course would put at immediate risk all gains achieved over thirteen years of war in Afghanistan," the statement said. McCain, Graham and others have also criticized Obama's announcements of withdrawal dates from Iraq as allowing enemies to take advantage.
At the White House news conference, Ghani offered no sign that he wanted a more open-ended commitment to a U.S. troop presence.
Ghani said that the Afghan National Security Forces were improving and would be capable of dealing with the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the remnants of Al Qaeda. He made no mention of reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was now seeking recruits in Afghanistan.
Ghani said that with Afghan forces in the lead, the risk to U.S. and allied troops had been reduced as they took on training and advisory roles. "We have taken them out of harm's way," Ghani said. "Thank God there are no longer American or European casualties."
Earlier, Ghani, who will address Congress on Wednesday, went with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan have been laid to rest.
In contrast to his predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai, Ghani has made a point during his first visit to the U.S. as president to thank U.S. troops for their sacrifices and has repeatedly noted that 2,215 Americans were killed and more than 20,000 were wounded in more than 13 years of war.
The last two Americans killed in Afghanistan were Sgt. 1st Class Ramon S. Morris, 37, of New York City, and Spec. Wyatt J. Martin, 22, of Mesa, Arizona. They were assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division based in Fort Hood, Tex. Their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Parwan province on Dec. 12.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com