Afghanistan: U.S. Expected To Delay Withdrawal

The United States has said that it is considering slowing down its exit from Afghanistan by keeping a higher than planned troop presence over the next few years due to the fact that the new Afghan government is proving to be a more reliable partner, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Saturday. Carter, who was on his first overseas trip since starting in his new position on Tuesday, also said the Obama administration is “rethinking” the counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, although he did not elaborate.

Mr. Carter said that the Obama administration was open to having a stronger military relationship with the current Afghan government, which is currently led by President Ashraf Ghani. This Afghan government has reset relations with the West after turbulent years when President Hamid Karzai often clashed with the United States over many issues.

“A lot has changed here, so much for the better. Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks. That is why President Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to our timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.”

Mr. Carter said he was in Afghanistan to begin his own assessment of the security situation since the United States wound down its combat mission last year. He said that he had seen varying reports about Afghanistan, including some that said the Taliban were undergoing a resurgence and others that claimed that a small group of militants had rebranded themselves as members of the Islamic State.

Shortly after arriving, he was briefed by Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the greater Middle East.

According to Mr. Carter, nothing has been set in stone, but President Barack Obama will discuss a number of available options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits the White House next month. According to reports, the presidents also plan to talk about the future of the counter-terrorism fight in Afghanistan.

Mr. Carter did not say Obama was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, only that the president was rethinking the pace of troop withdrawals between this year and next. There are about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from its highest of 100,000 in 2010-11.

Although the White House has yet to expand on, or even acknowledge, Mr. Carter’s remarks, said remarks were the most direct explanation by a Pentagon official amid criticism from opposition Republicans that the Democratic commander in chief is beating a hasty and risky retreat.

[Photo Courtesy: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]