An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier carries a colleague who was wounded during an offensive with Taleban insurgents.— AFP
An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier carries a colleague who was wounded during an offensive with Taleban insurgents.— AFP

WASHINGTON: In a potential major shift in policy, US military commanders want to keep at least a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, citing a fragile security situation highlighted by the Taleban’s capture of the northern city of Kunduz this week as well as recent militant inroads in the south.

Keeping any substantial number of troops in Afghanistan beyond next year would mark a sharp departure from President Barack Obama’s existing plan, which would leave only an embassy-based security cooperation presence of about 1,000 military personnel by the end of next year. Obama has made it a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy message that he would end the US war in Afghanistan and get American troops out by the time he left office in January 2017.

About 9,800 US troops are in Afghanistan. But the top US 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 US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about plans still under consideration. The 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 US combat, they said.

The timing of a new decision on US troop levels is unclear. Campbell is scheduled to testify to Congress next week on the security situation, including the effectiveness of Afghan security forces after a tough summer of fighting. Meanwhile, the US military said it conducted two more airstrikes overnight on Taleban positions around Kunduz. A US Army spokesman, Col Brian Tribus, said coalition advisers were at the scene yesterday, “in the Kunduz area advising Afghan security forces.”

The Taleban’s takeover of Kunduz, a city of 300,000, marked the militants’ first capture of a major city since the US invasion ousted their government 14 years ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Republican critics of Obama’s approach to transitioning from wartime occupation of Afghanistan to full Afghan security control called the fall of Kunduz a predictable consequence of Obama’s calendar-based troop reductions. The loss of Kunduz may prove temporary, but it has underscored the fragility of Afghan security and hardened the view of those who favor keeping U.S. troops there beyond 2016.

According to US 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 options would allow for a gradual decline in troop numbers over the coming year, depending on the security conditions in Afghanistan and the capabilities of the Afghan forces, who sustained heavy combat losses this year and last.

As far back as March, during top-level meetings at the Camp David presidential retreat, senior administration officials were leaving the door open to a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan in 2017. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Republican-controlled Congress favor extending the U.S. military presence. Ghani has expressed worry about militants affiliated with the Islamic State group trying to gain a wider foothold in his country.

Counterterrorism missions

Both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry have suggested the importance of the US continuing its counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, even into 2017. During the Camp David meetings, Kerry said the administration was concerned about reports that Islamic State militants are recruiting in Afghanistan and that some Taleban were rebranding themselves as Islamic State members. Since then, other US officials have cited the Islamic State as a potentially growing threat, and the Taleban have made inroads in the southern province of Helmand.

“We see (Islamic State) capabilities increasing somewhat but not to the point where they can conduct operations that you’re seeing in Iraq and Syria, although we do note the potential for them to evolve into something more serious, more dangerous,” Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner told reporters at the Pentagon last month.

In August the Taleban seized the district of Musa Qala in Helmand and were only driven back by Afghan forces days later, after 24 US airstrikes. Pentagon officials on Tuesday had few details about how Kunduz fell. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook called it a “setback” for Afghan forces, expressed confidence in their ability to eventually retake the city, and declined to say what the clash reveals about the capabilities of the Taleban.

Acting Afghan Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai told a news conference in Kabul that the Taleban fighters had infiltrated the city during the recent Eid holiday, the biggest of the year, when millions of Afghans move around the country to spend time with family.

The Taleban fighters were reinforced by militants who came from neighboring Pakistan after being driven out by a military offensive, as well as from China and Central Asia, Stanekzai said. The fierce, multipronged assault caught the Afghan military and intelligence agencies off guard after what had appeared to be a stalemate throughout the summer between Taleban forces besieging the city and government troops defending it. The US officially ended its combat role at the end of 2014 but has kept troops there to train and advise Afghan forces and to hit extremist targets. – AP