US hints at slowing Afghan pullout

Published February 22, 2015
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrive for a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on February 21, 2015.  — AFP
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrive for a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on February 21, 2015. — AFP

KABUL: President Barack Obama’s new Pentagon chief said on Saturday the United States was seriously considering slowing the pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the country faces a growing Taliban insurgency.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s comments in Kabul offered the clearest sign yet that Washington was ready to delay the closure of some bases and retain more troops after appeals by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and advice from commanders.

To safeguard “hard-won” progress, Mr Obama “is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of US troops,” Mr Carter said after talks with Afghan leaders.

“That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures to ensure we have the right array of coalition capabilities,” he said at a joint news conference with Mr Ghani.

Apart from troop numbers, the United States and its allies would need to make “long-term commitments in resources, equipment and other support” to ensure the success of the Afghan forces, he said.

Mr Carter’s visit comes amid a sharp rise in Afghan casualties from the 13-year conflict, with the UN recording a 22 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured in 2014 due to intensification in ground fighting between government and insurgent forces.

It also comes as Mr Obama faces a decision about the timetable for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong US force is due to drop to roughly 5,000 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time Mr Obama leaves office in two years.

But the Obama administration has already delayed the pace of the withdrawal, allowing 1,000 additional American forces to remain this year.

Afghan leaders and some lawmakers have urged the US president to reconsider the withdrawal timetable, warning that an early US exit could jeopardise security and international aid.

Mr Carter said that as part of the review of the pullout plan, Washington was also “rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission” that currently targets Al Qaeda militants with raids by US and Afghan special forces and drone strikes.

Published in Dawn February 22nd , 2015

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