The US is to keep about 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than planned temporarily to fill a NATO troop gap in the new mission to train and advise Afghan security forces, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Saturday during his final visit to the war-weary country as head of the Pentagon.
At a news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Hagel said the original plan to cut US troop levels to 9,800 by the end of the year had been abandoned, but not because of a recent surge in Taliban attacks.
Hagel said Washington will keep up to 10,800 troops for the first few months of next year and then restart the drawdown, which is scheduled to whittle the number of troops down to 5,500 by the end of that year.
The US decided to keep additional forces in the country temporarily because troop commitments by its allies for a NATO train-and-assist mission starting next month have been slow to materialize.
General John Campbell, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview later in the day that he is confident NATO members will furnish the number of troops necessary for the new training mission, which begins on Jan. 1.
It is just going to take a few extra weeks or months to get them to the country, he said.
Campbell, who took over as International Security Assistance Force and US forces commander on Aug. 26 and has served two previous tours in Afghanistan, spoke glowingly of the new government led by Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
“It’s like night and day difference dealing with this government,” compared with the previous government led by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was often publicly critical of US military efforts against the Taliban insurgency, Campbell said.
He said Afghan forces’ morale and confidence have been boosted by Ghani’s enthusiastic embrace of their efforts and sacrifices.
While flying to Kabul from Washington, Hagel was receiving almost continuous updates on the US commando raid in Yemen to rescue an American being held hostage there: photojournalist Luke Somers.
At the news conference, Hagel said Obama agreed to allow Campbell the extra 1,000 troops “for a few months” only, adding that “the president’s authorization will not change our troops’ missions, or the long-term timeline for our drawdown.”
Hagel said the US also will keep pursuing a “limited” counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan beyond this year.
“We have not forgotten what brought America’s armed forces here over a decade ago,” he said. “We are committed to preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States, our allies and partners, and the Afghan people.”
Hagel said he believes Afghanistan will successfully put down a surge in Taliban attacks in the capital and stabilize the nation.
In an interview with reporters traveling with him, Hagel was in a reflective mood about the US’ longest war.
The former senator recalled arriving in Kabul in January 2002 as a member of a congressional delegation when security was so dicey that they had to arrive under cover of darkness and left before dawn.
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