WASHINGTON — The United States will keep its current level of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of the year, rather than reducing that number to 5,500 as planned, the White House said Tuesday.
The announcement comes as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits President Barack Obama and attends a series of meetings at the White House.
Ghani has requested that the U.S. consider adjusting its troop withdrawal timeline, with greater support from U.S. troops over the next few years during a transition to a complete withdrawal.
“The timeline for a withdrawal down to a embassy center presence, a normalization of our presence in Afghanistan, remains the end of 2016,” Obama said in a joint press conference with Ghani Tuesday afternoon. “So that hasn’t changed. Our transition out of a combat role has not changed.”
Obama acknowledged that as long as troops were in the region, they would face risks in a “dangerous place.”
“We’re essentially moving the drawdown pace over to the right by several months in part to compensate for the lengthy … government formation; in part because we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed; so we don’t have to go back.”
Currently, there are 9,800 U.S. troops providing training and support in Afghanistan, as well as 3,000 troops from other NATO countries. The Obama administration had planned to reduce that number to about 5,500 by the end of this year before withdrawing completely by the end of 2016.
But Ghani has made clear to Obama in recent conversations that such a timeline could jeopardize the security situation on the ground as Afghan forces continue to fight back the Taliban and al Qaeda.
“The institutional gains that would be achieved through the (training), advise and (assisting) role is what will guarantee that the investments of the last 14 years pay off,” Ghani said during Tuesday’s press conference.
Ghani also discussed his country’s need for support during a Monday press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
“Peace is our goal, but peace from strength, an enduring peace that will bring regional cooperation,” Ghani said, acknowledging that President Obama will make the decision on troop numbers.
“What we have emphasized and agreed is that we are strategic partners. We are bound by common interests and will act together to ensure both the safety of United States and the safety of Afghanistan. That is the important consideration. Numbers are a means; they are not an end in themselves,” Ghani said.
Tuesday’s meeting, Ghani’s first trip to the White House as president, marks a pointed shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan since Ghani took office.
“This is a different relationship than we had under President Karzai,” Jeff Eggers, special assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters in a conference call Friday. “It’s clearly more cooperative and better.”