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U.S. to halt Afghanistan withdrawal, will keep 5,500 troops

President Obama announced plans to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Thursday.JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

President Obama announced plans to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Thursday.

President Obama said Thursday the U.S. will keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan after he leaves office in 2017, abandoning plans to end the war on his watch.

“I believe this mission is vital to our national security interests in preventing terrorist attacks against our citizens and our nation,” Obama said at a White House news conference. “I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”

“This modest but meaningful extension of our presence — while sticking to our current, narrow missions — can make a real difference. It’s the right thing to do,” he added.

Military leaders, who have argued for months that the Afghans needed additional help from the U.S. to beat back a resurgent Taliban and hold onto gains made since the war began in 2001, will now maintain their current force of 9,800 troops through most of 2016, then draw down to 5,500 troops in 2017.

“I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests,” Obama said. But, he added, “the bottom line is, in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.”

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Obama, who had originally planned to pull out all but a small, embassy-based U.S. military presence by the end of next year, a timeline coinciding with the final weeks of his presidency, admitted the revised plan would make certain that the 14-year conflict would stretch into the tenure of his successor.

“I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next President,” Obama said, standing alongside Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

In the two-plus years since Obama’s decision to announce a quicker timeline for a troop withdrawal, conditions on the ground in Afghanistan have deteriorated, leading officials to recommend the policy shift.

In recent weeks, Taliban fighters took control of the key northern city of Kunduz, prompting a protracted battle with Afghan forces on the ground, supported by U.S. air strikes.

During the fighting, a U.S. air strike hit a hospital, killing 22 people, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staff and 10 patients.

U.S. commanders also have expressed concern about Islamic State terrorist fighters moving into the war-torn country and gaining recruits from within the Taliban.

The White House’s decision to keep troops in the country is also thought to be tied to Obama having a more reliable partner in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who succeeded Hamid Karzai last year.

“We cannot separate the importance of governance from the importance of security,” Obama said.

NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan security personnel stand guard at a checkpoint in Kunduz, after Afghan forces retook control of the city from Taliban forces.

The troops staying in Afghanistan beyond next year will continue to focus on counterterrorism missions, and training and advising Afghan security forces, Obama said.

They will be based in Kabul and Bagram Air Field, as well as in bases in Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Despite campaigning in 2008 on promises to end the nation’s involvement in two wars he inherited — Iraq and Afghanistan — Obama will now leave the White House in 2017 with troops in both countries.

Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in late 2011, but the rise of ISIS drew the U.S. military back into the nation last year to train and assist local security forces and launch air strikes.

With News Wire Services

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Nation / World – NY Daily News

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