Afghanistan: Obama again slows pace of U.S. withdrawal

Warning that al-Qaida is trying to regroup and its Taliban hosts have made battlefield gains, President Obama announced Wednesday that he was slowing the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and that his successor will inherit some 8,400 troops there.

“The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious,” Obama told reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford at his side. “As president and commander and chief, I’ve made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”

Obama first ran for president vowing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his announcement means that the next commander in chief will inherit major conflicts in both countries.

U.S. troop numbers, previously scheduled to slip down to 5,500 by the end of the year, will now drop from about 9,800 currently to about 8,400 going into 2017.

“The decision I’m making today ensures that my successor has a solid foundation for continued progress in Afghanistan as well as the flexibility to address the threat of terrorism as it evolves,” Obama said.

While he emphasized that America no longer has a combat mission in Afghanistan, Obama has made significant adjustments to U.S. posture there over the past year. In October 2015, he announced that he was slowing the pace of the troop withdrawal. And then in early June, he expanded the U.S. military role in helping Afghan security forces from the air and on the ground.

On Wednesday, he renewed his call for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table to hammer out a political settlement with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

“The only way to end this conflict and to achieve a full drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban — that’s the only way,” he said. “That is why the United States will continue to strongly support an Afghan-led reconciliation process, and why we call on all countries in the region to end safe havens for militants and terrorists.”

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban Islamist militia that controlled the country refused to turn over Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The conflict is America’s longest war.