Withdrawal from Afghanistan under review: US defence chief

Source:  Reuters Published in US on Sunday, February 22, 2015

KABUL: Washington is reviewing a plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by 2016 to ensure that “progress sticks” after more than a decade of war, new US Defence Secretary Ash Carter told reporters in Kabul on Saturday.

Under the current plan, the United States will halve the number of troops in Afghanistan to 5,000 this year, gradually winding down to a “normal” US embassy presence by 2016.

That schedule could now change, said Carter on his first trip abroad since swearing in as the Pentagon chief on Tuesday, as the United States rethinks the future of its counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.

His remarks set the stage for talks next month when the Afghan president is expected in Washington.

“Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks,” Carter said at a joint conference with President Ashraf Ghani, hours after landing in Kabul.

“That is why President (Barack) 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.”

Ghani said he expected to discuss US troop numbers with Obama “in the context of the larger partnership.”

The current strategy has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who say that hard-won gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the US withdrawal. Afghanistan’s national army and police suffered heavy losses last year, the bloodiest since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001.

The emergence of a small number of militants in Afghanistan aligning themselves with Islamic State, which swept into northern Iraq last summer, has underscored anxieties about the dangers as foreign forces withdraw.

Carter said the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan appeared ‘aspirational’.” But he also acknowledged the future of the US counter-terrorism mission was also under review. “We are discussing and rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism, since we first laid out our plans,” Carter said.