WASHINGTON: Presi­dent Barack Obama has decided to keep 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan through 2016. There are 9,800 troops currently in the country and the initial plan was to leave 5,500 there through the end of the year.

“Our forces are now focused on two narrow missions: training and advising Afghan forces and supporting counter-terrorist operations,” Mr Obama said during an address from the White House on Wednesday.

“Over the past year and a half, 38 Americans ... have given their lives in Afghanistan for our security. We honour their sacrifice.”

President Obama had originally planned to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 but changed that plan after his field commanders warned that doing so could have dangerous consequences.

He then announced his plan to keep 5,500 troops till the end of his second and final tenure but now that plan too has been revised, apparently on recommendations from Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter and senior US military commanders.

Later, a White House official told journalists that new US counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan will continue to target Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group and other groups deemed as terrorist organisations in the region.

Last month, President Obama gave news powers to US troops in Afghanistan, allowing them to participate in combat missions in support of Afghan security forces. He also authorised US air strikes in Afghanistan, which led to recent drone attacks at militant targets.

Commenting on these decisions, the US media noted that President Obama was engaging in subtle messaging to both the Afghan government and the Taliban. To the Afghan government, he is sending the message that while American support will remain strong, it will not continue indefinitely.

The message to the Taliban is: You cannot outlast the United States. Negotiation is your only option.

“I’ve made it clear that I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again,” Mr Obama said in his address. “Even as we remain relentless against those who threaten us, we are no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan”.

On Thursday, Secretary Carter told reporters that the Pentagon was still finalising how many US counter-terrorism troops will be deployed and how operations will be funded.

He said that advising Afghan forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations will both remain US priorities.

Of the 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan, some 6,950 are focused on the advising mission, known as Resolute Support, and more than 2,000 involved in counter-terrorism missions in an operation known as Freedom’s Sentinel.

The decision to keep more troops in Afghanistan was announced just a day before President Obama flew to Warsaw to attend the Nato Summit. Reports from Warsaw suggest that the United States is urging its Nato allies to continue supporting the US mission in Afghanistan.

Last month, President Obama removed the restrictions that barred US support forces from actively fighting against Taliban militants. New powers allow US commanders to order air strikes against Taliban targets as they see fit, rather than being limited to an as-necessary basis.

He also allowed American ground forces to accompany Afghan government fighters into combat — something they haven’t formally been allowed to do for almost two years.

Reports from Afghanistan suggest that US troops have participants in recent fights against the Taliban.

Since first landing in Afghanistan in 2001, following 9/11, the American military has attempted to set up a stable government and an Afghan military, capable of resisting the Taliban on their own.

Explaining his decision to keep more troops in Afghanistan than originally planned, President Obama said that it was not just his desire to do so but the Afghan government and the Afghan also “support a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.”

He also referred to “another milestone” in the US-led war in that region, the removal of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur in Balochistan on May 21.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2016