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U.S. military commanders mull keeping troops in Afghanistan past 2016

WASHINGTON -- With the Taliban gaining new ground, U.S. military commanders are arguing for keeping at least a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, a move that would mark a departure from President Barack Obama's current policy.

Afghan forces yesterday were preparing for what is expected to be a protracted battle to retake Kunduz, a city of 300,000 that was overrun by the Taliban on Monday. The United States was assisting with at least five airstrikes over the past two days in a struggle that highlighted concerns about the apparent fragility of U.S.-trained Afghan security forces.

The militants extended their grip on Kunduz, forcing government forces to retreat from a strategic fortress hilltop and giving the insurgents a vantage point overlooking the city. The airport remained the only pocket of resistance.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said conditions on the ground in Afghanistan would be taken into account as Obama considers how to proceed with his planned drawdown of troops. Under his existing plan, only an embassy-based security cooperation presence of about 1,000 military personnel would remain at the end of next year.

Obama has made it a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy message that he would end the U.S. war in Afghanistan and get American troops out by the time he left office in January 2017.

About 9,800 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, has given the administration several options for gradually reducing that number over the next 15 months, said U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about plans still under consideration.

Campbell's options all call for keeping a higher-than-planned troop presence based on his judgment of what it would take to sustain the Afghan army and minimize the chances of losing more ground gained over more than a decade of costly U.S. combat, they said.

According to U.S. officials, Campbell's options would postpone any major cuts in troop levels this year and give him more leeway on the pace of any reductions next year. The options, officials said, include keeping as many as 8,000 troops there well into next year and maintaining several thousand troops as a counterterrorism force into 2017.

The timing of a new decision on U.S. troop levels is unclear. Campbell is scheduled to testify to Congress next week on the security situation, including the effectiveness of Afghan forces after a tough summer of fighting.

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