- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The White House and Pentagon are re-evaluating the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, opening the door to keeping thousands of American troops in the country beyond President Obama’s expressed timeline to draw down the mission.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter confirmed to reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels Wednesday that Mr. Obama is taking a fresh look at the U.S. deployment in the now 15-year-old conflict against the Taliban, and British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in Brussels that could mean slowing the withdrawal timetable, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Obama “has indicated consistently over this time” his willingness to review force levels. “I’ll expect he will do that again as the year goes on,” Mr. Carter said.

During meetings with the alliance’s top military leaders, Mr. Carter noted that NATO has agreed to maintain its troop presence in Afghanistan through 2017. The alliance has roughly 6,900 troops from various NATO countries in Afghanistan, along with some 9,800 American troops. U.S. and NATO forces maintain a multinational headquarters in Kabul as part of Operation Resolute Support, the alliance’s train-and-advise mission.

Outside of Kabul, a majority of NATO’s forces are centered in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and Herat, located along the country’s western border with Iran, while American forces are focused in Jalalabad and Kandahar in the country’s eastern and southern regions respectively.

“Everyone has an interest that our effort there is sustained,” Mr. Fallon said shortly after Wednesday’s meetings, according to the Reuters news agency.

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“That’s why, as Ash Carter told us, the troop numbers are being looked at again, ” Mr. Fallon said. “This is the wrong time to walk away from Afghanistan.”

A new assessment could come as soon as next month at the NATO summit in Warsaw.

Wednesday’s discussions came after Mr. Carter announced Tuesday that U.S. forces would continue to operate out of major military outposts in eastern and southern portions of the country. The decision was one of several tied to the White House’s new strategy for Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Mr. Carter the talks are centered on drawing down to a 5,500-man force in the country by the end of the year, but keeping those troops in Afghanistan through the remainder of Mr. Obama’s term in office.

The White House had planned to reduce U.S. troop numbers from the current 9,800 to 5,500 by 2016, consolidated in Kabul and Bagram Airfield — the massive American air base near Kabul — with the ultimate goal of pulling out every U.S. soldier by the end of next year.

That plan, however, relied heavily on Afghan forces’ ability to hold ground on their own against the Taliban. But after two fighting seasons on their own, Afghan forces have ceded nearly 80 of Afghanistan’s 400-plus districts to Taliban control.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, warned in April that Afghan security forces are simply “unprepared to counter the Taliban militants’ summer campaign.”

As a result, White House officials gave the green light to allow U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to conduct offensive airstrikes against the Taliban and other insurgent groups and to let American troops resume joint ground operations with Afghan forces. The changes to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan effectively restarts the combat mission for the 9,800 U.S. service members still in the country.

The changes were based on the findings of a three-month review of the situation in Afghanistan, which was overseen by Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander there.

Gen. Nicholson cautioned in April that renewed alliances between the Taliban and resurgent al Qaeda terrorist cells, Islamic State’s encroachment in the east and the Afghan military’s relative ineffectiveness could force Mr. Obama to abandon his withdrawal timeline.

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