WARSAW, Poland -- NATO will hold troop levels steady in Afghanistan as part of a plan to extend its mission there into 2017, but unlike some U.S. troops on the ground, allies will not return to a combat role in the war-torn country, NATO's top official said on Saturday.
At a meeting of heads of state during the second and final day of a NATO summit in Warsaw, allies also pledged to continue funding the Afghan military and police through 2020, a key priority for Washington which picks up most of the $5 billion tab.
"Our message is clear, Afghanistan doesn't stand alone and we are committed for the long haul," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. "It is too early to provide exact (troop) numbers, but based on what has been committed in this meeting today, we can say troop level s will be about the same in 2017 as it is in 2016."
NATO's long-expected decision to extend its training and advisory campaign comes on the heels of a decision by the Obama administration to maintain higher-than-expected troop levels in the country. The U.S. will retain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan next year, instead of reducing them to 5,500 by the end of 2016, as originally planned. The moves are in response to concerns over the Afghan military's ability to manage security in the country, where the Taliban remains entrenched and on the march in some sectors despite 15 years of war.
U.S. forces were recently granted more flexibility by the White House to fight alongside Afghan troops as well as conduct airstrikes, a signal that the combat mission still continues in practical terms for many American service members despite the emphasis on training and advising.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan currently serve two primary missions -- training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces under NATO's Resolute Support mission and conducting counterterrorism operations under the unilateral Operation Freedom's Sentinel.
"I think it is extremely important to understand we (NATO) ended our combat mission at the end of 2014, because over several years we have built up Afghan forces," Stoltenberg said.
NATO, however, will remain focused on its training and advisory campaign and is expected to maintain a presence at regional training centers across Afghanistan.
"Additional planning will be conducted in the coming months to define our overall presence in 2017," Stoltenberg said.
NATO's current non-U.S. presence in Afghanistan is about 3,000 troops. That number is likely to hold fairly steady, with an overall force presence of roughly 12,000, though final numbers still need to be worked out, Stoltenberg said.