March 24, 2015
WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday it will delay its planned withdrawal of U.S. troops, and maintain a force of 9,800 through the end of this year.
Future cuts in 2016 will be made based on conditions on the ground, according to a White House statement released Tuesday.
The announcement followed a meeting between President Obama and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Tuesday. Ghani had asked for the delay in the troop cuts.
Ghani and other officials from Afghanistan's new "unity government" also met with Obama as part of an effort to improve U.S.-Afghan relations that deteriorated under predecessor Hamid Karzai.
The Obama administration has planned to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan from some 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of this year; Ghani has said he wants more U.S. troops to stay longer as Afghanistan seeks to build up its own military.
In announcing the delay, Obama cited a "reinvigorated partnership" between the U.S. and Afghanistan, an apparent reference to his problems with Karzai.
Ghani thanked Obama and the United State for standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Afghanistan, including military and economic aid.
"I would also like to thank the American taxpayer," he said.
Ghani, who has also spoken this week with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, said Monday that "we are bound by common interests and will act together to ensure both the safety of United States and the safety of Afghanistan."
The question of specific troop numbers, Ghani added, "is a decision for the president of the United States."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized that Obama wants nearly all troops of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017, except for a security presence at the U.S. embassy and other facilities. "We're talking about in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 troops," the spokesman said.
A U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to dislodge the ruling Taliban for protecting the plotters of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the installation of a new government, the U.S. kept troops in Afghanistan to fight an ongoing war by Taliban insurgents.
As he seeks to end U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Obama is looking to forge a better relationship with Ghani than he had with Karzai, who often clashed with American officials.
Ghani won a close and disputed election last year in Afghanistan. Amid arguments about the vote, Ghani and chief opponent Abdullah Abdullah agreed to form a unity government, with Abdullah tabbed as "chief executive officer." Abdullah also attended the White House meetings.
The U.S. and Afghanistan officials planned to discuss "a range of issues including security, economic development, and U.S. support for the Afghan-led reconciliation process," says the White House schedule.
The White House says "this marks the first meeting between the two presidents at the White House following the 2014 presidential election, which produced the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history."
After their meetings with Ghani, Carter and Kerry pledged continuing U.S. military and economic assistance to Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the Afghanistan president addresses a joint session of Congress. Later in the week, he speaks with other world leaders at the United Nations.