WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Thursday he will keep 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into 2017, ending his ambitions to bring home most American forces from that war-torn country before he leaves office.
The president said his decision came after an extensive monthslong review that included regular discussions with Afghanistan's leaders, his national security team and U.S. commanders in the field. The move reflected a painful, if predictable, reality on the ground in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has made gains over the last year as Afghan troops have taken over the vast majority of the fighting.
"Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be," Obama said from the White House. "Meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains particularly in rural areas and can still launch deadly attacks in cities, including Kabul."
Obama said he will also dramatically slow the pace of the reduction of American forces and plans to maintain the current U.S. force of 9,800 through "most of 2016."
The post-2016 force would still be focused on training and advising the Afghan army, with a special emphasis on its elite counterterror forces. The United States would also maintain a significant counterterrorism capability of drones and Special Operations forces to strike al-Qaida and other militants who may be plotting attacks against the United States.
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The revised plans came just weeks after Afghan forces were driven from Kunduz, the first major city to fall to the Taliban since the war began in 2001. Two weeks passed before the Afghans, with some support from U.S. planes and Special Operations advisers, took the city back. Militants are now threatening other cities.
"The bottom line is that in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there's risk of deterioration," Obama said.
The president praised the Afghan government, under the leadership of President Ashraf Ghani, as a willing partner, and he lauded the Afghan troops, who have taken significant casualties. Both were critical factors in his decision to keep U.S. troops in the country.
Obama acknowledged the strain that the 14-year conflict has taken on the U.S. military and America's broader war weariness. "As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war," he said.
Although U.S. deaths have fallen off dramatically in recent years, the change may also mean more U.S. casualties. So far this year, 25 American service members and civilians have been killed in the country. Overall, 2,200 Americans have died since the conflict began, and the war has cost more than $1 trillion.
The president's revamped plan was welcomed by several Republican presidential candidates, but some said 5,500 troops would not be enough.
"If he is truly committed to fighting terrorism and securing a stable Afghanistan, he shouldn't shortchange what our military commanders have said they need to complete the mission," said Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor did not say how many troops he thought would be sufficient.
According to a defense official, the president approved the highest number requested by commanders.
Former technology executive Carly Fiorina called Obama's decision a "recognition of reality" in Afghanistan.