Washington DC – The Obama administration is weighing options for extending the US military presence in Afghanistan and preparing to reverse an earlier decision by the president to withdraw most US troops by the end of 2016.
As the US war in Afghanistan enters its 15th year on Wednesday, a reversal of President Barack Obama’s policy has become more likely following recent Taliban gains, including the assault on the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, analysts and lawmakers say.
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Appearing before a key committee of US lawmakers Tuesday, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, outlined the rationale for keeping a significant American and NATO presence in Afghanistan through 2018 – and perhaps longer.
“I have provided options to take a look at the mission sets that we want to do in the future,” Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We still have to train, advise and assist at certain levels – for aviation, for logistics, for intelligence, for special operations forces. We have to have a counterterrorism capability, and you need a certain number of forces to do that.”
Obama reached a decision last year to reduce the US troops, now at 9,800 in Afghanistan, to just 1,000 troops at the US embassy in Kabul by the end of the year.
That would require closure of Bagram Air Base and withdrawal of essentially all US forces from posts outside the capital. “We would not have the ability to conduct counterterrorism as we do today if we were just based in Kabul,” Campbell told the committee.
Obama signalled flexibility on that plan in March after meeting with new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Now, the increasing number and frequency of attacks by Taliban fighters and entry of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Afghanistan is raising serious concern in Washington.
“There’s an urgency to reverse what is clearly a deteriorating trend,” said Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Jack Reed on the committee agreed. “The news reports regarding security conditions in Afghanistan indicate a worsening situation,” he said.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will meet Thursday with defence ministers of the alliance’s 28 member states. NATO is considering long-term plans in Afghanistan, including the possibility of a permanent joint NATO-US base.
“We will assess. We will make decisions related to both the level of our presence in Afghanistan, the support force level, and also our geographical outreach – whether it is going to be four spokes, or bases in addition to what we have in Kabul,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO has regional bases in Herat, Kandahar, Laghman and Mazar-e-Sharif and a headquarters in Kabul. The alliance and other coalition partners with the US have a combined 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.
A reversal of the decision to withdrawal US troops to a minimum level would be a political setback for Obama who campaigned for office in 2008 on a promise to end US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Obama wants them completely out – all of our people,” said Lawrence J Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank allied with the administration.
“Given what’s happened with the fall of Kunduz, we’re probably going to 4,000 or 5,000 and then get NATO to contribute more, and that will give you enough presence so that if things go to hell in a hand basket, you can do something,” Korb told Al Jazeera.
The president delivered his promised withdrawal from Iraq but in retrospect, at a huge cost. The US lost influence in Baghdad and watched as ISIL overran the Iraqi army, prompting a return of US forces that are increasingly being drawn into Syria’s civil war.
“The odds seem high that President Obama will revise his departure plan and leave office with at least several thousand US troops still in Afghanistan,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Washington-based Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera.
“His departure from Iraq in 2011 is now widely seen to be a major mistake that contributed to the success of Daesh [ISIL] there. It’s one more reason why there is pressure on him not to risk a repeat performance in Afghanistan,” O’Hanlon said.
In the United States, the politics surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have tilted. Republicans have painted Obama as weak and ineffective in the Middle East since the withdrawal from Iraq – a criticism that is beginning to stick.
Democrats supported the president’s diplomatic initiative in the Iran nuclear talks, but they do not want to see the US leave prematurely in Afghanistan, a war that began after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan was launched on October 7, 2001.
Obama would find thin support in Congress for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The mood, unfortunately, is swinging in the direction of more US involvement in general in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the anti-war group CodePink, told Al Jazeera.
“The Taliban taking Kunduz affects the atmosphere a lot in terms of the administration feeling less able to justify the pull-out.”
Campbell told the Senate the US air strike on a charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz was a mistake. He said the bombing had been conducted by the US at the request of Afghan forces, but the decision to fire had been made through the US chain of command.
“We had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered these fires,” the general said.
The bombing early Saturday killed 22 people and MSF has called for an independent investigation by the United Nations.
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