President Barack Obama on Thursday announced thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan past 2016, retreating from a major campaign pledge as he admitted Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.
Calling his decision to keep a 9,800-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan through much of next year "the right thing to do," the president acknowledged "Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be."
"As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again," he said.
Obama's repeated promises to end America's "longest war," have again been thwarted by a dogged Taliban insurgency and Afghan forces slow to get to their feet.
Addressing battle-weary troops who may now be forced to return for another tour, Obama said they could "make a real difference" to stabilizing a strategic partner.
"I do not send you into harm's way lightly," he told them.
"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's decision -- announced in a televised address from the Roosevelt Room of the White House -- means he bequeaths to his successor a 14-year war that he inherited from George W. Bush.
Coming to office in 2009, Obama had pledged to end a conflict that has now cost more than 2,000 U.S. lives and injured and maimed tens of thousands.
The war in Afghanistan was prompted by the Taliban refusal to surrender al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks.
NATO forces have been in the country since 2001, with the United States representing by far the largest contingent.
Under previous plans, the United States would have drawn down its troop numbers by the end of 2016 from about 10,000 currently, to about 1,000.
But now, by late next year or early 2017 when Obama steps down and the 45th U.S. president is sworn in, their numbers are expected to remain at about 5,500.
- 'Jihad will continue' -
Recent intense fighting has underscored the continued role of American troops in training the still fledgling Afghan forces and in vital counterterror operations.
The Taliban responded to the U.S. announcement saying they would keep fighting until American troops finally pull out.
"They were the ones who decided to invade Afghanistan. But it will be us who decide when they leave," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
"When the attacks continue to mount on the occupiers and when they see they have to spend more money in their meaningless war, they will be forced to change their oppressive policy. Our jihad will continue until the last occupier is expelled," the spokesman told AFP.
Two weeks ago the Taliban scored their biggest military victory since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, capturing the city of Kunduz.
Only a swift response by U.S.-trained Afghan security forces led to an eventual Taliban retreat.
- Extensive review -
A senior administration official said Obama was making his announcement "as a result of an extensive, months-long review, and in consultation with his full national security team and our Afghan partners."
The 5,500 troops that will remain late next year or in early 2017 will stay at a small number of bases, including at Bagram Airfield -- the largest U.S. military base in the country -- Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.
But the official stressed that the troops would not have a combat role.
"This announcement in no way changes the fact that our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, and we will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners," the official said.
The NATO coalition said Tuesday that U.S. and Afghan forces carried out one of their largest joint operations in southern Kandahar province, dismantling a major al-Qaida sanctuary in the Taliban's historic heartland.
The news on the troop deployment came after a series of setbacks, including a U.S. air strike on October 3 on a hospital in Kunduz run by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 14 staff and 10 patients, with nine others still unaccounted for.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday foreshadowed the announcement, saying it was important for the United States "to formulate options for 2016 and beyond."
"It's important to say these things because the narrative that we're leaving Afghanistan is self-defeating," Carter told an Army conference in Washington.
"We're not, we can't, and to do so would not be to take advantage of the success we've had to date," Carter said.
Carter last week said several NATO defense ministers told him they were also open to changes to current planning for Afghanistan.
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