WASHINGTON (AP) — With the Taliban gaining new ground, U.S. military commanders are arguing for keeping at least a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, a move that would mark a departure from President Barack Obama's current policy.
Afghan forces on Wednesday were preparing for what is expected to be a protracted battle to retake Kunduz, a key city that was overrun by the Taliban on Monday, and the U.S. was assisting with at least five airstrikes over the past two days. The struggle highlighted concerns about the apparent fragility of U.S.-trained Afghan security forces.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, including the current trouble in Kunduz, would be taken into account as Obama considers how to proceed with his planned drawdown of troops. Under his existing plan, only an embassy-based security cooperation presence of about 1,000 military personnel would remain at the end of next year.
Obama has made it a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy message that he would end the U.S. war in Afghanistan and get American troops out by the time he left office in January 2017.
About 9,800 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, has given the administration several options for gradually reducing that number over the next 15-months, said U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about plans still under consideration.
Campbell's options all call for keeping a higher-than-planned troop presence based on his judgment of what it would take to sustain the Afghan army and minimize the chances of losing more ground gained over more than a decade of costly U.S. combat, they said.
According to U.S. officials, Campbell's options would postpone any major cuts in troop levels this year and give him more leeway on the pace of any reductions next year. The options, officials said, include keeping as many as 8,000 troops there well into next year and maintaining several thousand troops as a counterterrorism force into 2017. The options would allow for a gradual decline in troop numbers over the coming year, depending on the security conditions in Afghanistan and the capabilities of the Afghan forces, who sustained heavy combat losses this year and last.
The timing of a new decision on U.S. troop levels is unclear. Campbell is scheduled to testify to Congress next week on the security situation, including the effectiveness of Afghan security forces after a tough summer of fighting.
The Taliban's takeover of Kunduz, a city of 300,000, marked the militants' first capture of a major city since the U.S. invasion ousted their government 14 years ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Republican critics of Obama's approach to transitioning from wartime occupation of Afghanistan to full Afghan security control called the fall of Kunduz a predictable consequence of Obama's calendar-based troop reductions.
The loss of Kunduz may prove temporary, but it has underscored the fragility of Afghan security and hardened the view of those who favor keeping U.S. troops there beyond 2016.
Speaking on CNN, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Wednesday the U.S. needs to maintain a long-term military presence there. He said that if the U.S. were already down to the planned embassy-based security presence of 1,000 troops, the country likely would be suffering a "complete unraveling" like in Iraq last year.
As far back as March, during top-level meetings at the Camp David presidential retreat, senior administration officials were leaving the door open to a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan in 2017. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Republican-controlled Congress favor extending the U.S. military presence. Ghani has expressed worry about militants affiliated with the Islamic State group trying to gain a wider foothold in his country.
Both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry have suggested the importance of the U.S continuing its counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, even into 2017. During the Camp David meetings, Kerry said the administration was concerned about reports that Islamic State militants are recruiting in Afghanistan and that some Taliban were rebranding themselves as Islamic State members. Since then, other U.S. officials have cited the Islamic State as a potentially growing threat, and the Taliban have made inroads in the southern province of Helmand.
"We see (Islamic State) capabilities increasing somewhat but not to the point where they can conduct operations that you're seeing in Iraq and Syria, although we do note the potential for them to evolve into something more serious, more dangerous," Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner told reporters at the Pentagon last month.
In August the Taliban seized the district of Musa Qala in Helmand and were only driven back by Afghan forces days later, after 24 U.S. airstrikes.
The U.S. officially ended its combat role at the end of 2014 but has kept troops there to train and advise Afghan forces and to hit extremist targets.