The US is abandoning plans to cut the number of its forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year, bowing to military leaders who want to keep more troops there, officials said.
While no final decision on numbers has been made, officials said the administration is poised to slow withdrawal plans and probably will allow many of the 9,800 American troops to remain well into next year.
There are also discussions about keeping a steady number of counter terrorism troops into 2015, including options under which some would remain in the country or be nearby beyond 2016.
Currently, about 2,000 US troops are conducting counter terrorism missions, and military leaders have argued that they will need to continue pursuing the remnants of al Qaida and to monitor Islamic State militants looking to recruit in Afghanistan.
Officials say US President Barack Obama will probably use a Washington visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this month as the time to announce his decision on a new withdrawal timeline.
Officials said it’s not clear yet whether the White House will agree to a small, symbolic decrease by the end of this year or insist on a larger cut. They note that there is some stiff opposition to any change, largely from national security adviser Susan Rice.
In recent weeks, Pentagon leaders, including Defence Secretary Ash Carter, have acknowledged the discussions about slowing the pace of troop withdrawal. But they are increasingly confident that the military will get its way and keep a robust force in Afghanistan beyond year’s end.
The administration, however, has shown no inclination so far for going beyond 2016; that’s a hard line drawn by the president when he announced the withdrawal plan.
The 2016 deadline is considered a politically crucial national security goal for Mr Obama, who promised to get all troops out by the end of his presidency, ending America’s longest war.
Mr Obama, who also pledged to end the war in Iraq, has had to send troops back there to help Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants. So his promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan has taken on more political importance.
Military leaders want to keep what they consider a “modest” number of troops in Afghanistan longer in order to protect America’s investment and provide as much training and advice as possible to Afghan forces. Maintaining a more stable number of troops, military leaders have argued, would allow better support of the Afghans during this summer’s fighting season and better prepare them for 2016 battles.
The original plan Mr Obama announced last year would reduce the number of US troops to 5,500 by the end of 2015, and take all but a routine, embassy-based security force out by the end of 2016. The embassy security mission varies widely around the world, but could total 1,000 troops. Ends