MARCH 19, 2015
More U.S. Troops Seen Staying in Afghanistan
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is nearing a decision to keep more troops in Afghanistan next year than it had intended, effectively upending its drawdown plans in response to roiling violence in the country and another false start in the effort to open peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
As recently as last month, American officials had hoped that a renewed push to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table would yield the beginnings of a peace process and allow the United States to stick with its plan to drop the number of troops  in Afghanistan from just under 10,000 to about 5,600 by the end of the year.
But those hopes have been dashed by signs that the Taliban remain deeply divided over whether to engage in talks, as they have been for years, and that the remaining Qaeda presence in the region is proving more resilient than officials had anticipated. 
As a result, Afghan and American officials are girding for another year of bloody fighting with the insurgents. Senior Obama administration officials broadly concluded during meetings over the last week that many of the roughly 10,000 troops and thousands of civilian contractors in Afghanistan would be needed well into 2016, officials said.
A change in the administration's plans would be further evidence of the continuing demands of America's longest war, which has raged on even after President Obama declared an end to America's "combat role" in Afghanistan. It would also reflect the impact of events in Iraq last year, where Iraqi military units collapsed in the face of an offensive by the Islamic State and the administration was compelled to send troops back to the country.
At the same time, the change would expose Mr. Obama to criticism from members of his own party who have pressed him to end America's military role in Afghanistan. Some of the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified deliberations over troop strength, said there might not be a public announcement on troop numbers to avoid potential criticism that Mr. Obama is backing away from his pledge to end the war in Afghanistan before he leaves office.
The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said on Thursday that Mr. Obama had yet to make a final decision about altering the plans to pull out troops, most of whom are there to train and advise Afghan forces, not to fight. But Mr. Earnest added that the president has always said that the military strategy would "constantly be checked against the security situation inside Afghanistan."
Another senior administration official said that Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, had requested flexibility on the pace of the drawdown, and that "we are actively considering that request."
Other officials said that the decision was all but made and that only the details had to be worked out. "President Obama has to decide the slope, the pace, of the withdrawal, but all indications are that he'll delay," said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
The intensity of the fighting in Afghanistan usually ebbs and flows with changing seasons, and the Taliban usually hunker down during the colder months when the high mountain passes connecting them to sanctuaries in Pakistan are blocked by snow. But snow and cold have brought little relief this year, with American military officials saying that the fighting this winter has been among the most intense since the war began.
The approaching summer fighting season is expected to be even more intense, adding to the urgency of the situation. There are also concerns about the ability of Afghan forces, which have struggled to hold off Taliban offensives since taking the lead in security over the past two years.
Exactly how many American troops would remain in Afghanistan, and how far into 2016 they would stay, is still to be decided, the officials said. They also insisted that the administration was, for now, committed to withdrawing all but a small force to protect the embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016.
Mr. Obama is expected to discuss the shifting plans for 2016 when he meets with Mr. Ghani during a scheduled visit to Washington next week. Mr. Ghani has pushed to keep as many international troops on hand as possible for as long as possible.
American commanders have similarly called for a slower withdrawal. But Mr. Obama's wariness of his military's judgment on Afghanistan runs deep, and Mr. Ghani's willingness to work with the United States has been "a big deal" for Mr. Obama, a senior American official said.
"There's a partner there now, and the thinking is that we should help," the official said.
Since assuming office in September, Mr. Ghani has shown a far greater willingness to work with the United States than had his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Ghani, for example, eased restrictions on nighttime raids and airstrikes by American-led forces put in place by Mr. Karzai.
During a trip to Afghanistan  last month, Ashton B. Carter, the new secretary of defense, said the administration was open to slowing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, citing the improved relations under Mr. Ghani. And military leaders have openly said that Afghan forces still need American support.
"We have to make sure that the Afghan security forces continue to improve," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, speaking to the benefits of a more prolonged drawdown during a House hearing on Tuesday.
"We have to continue to help them as they continue to fight," he added. "It's important we stay with them and that we have a conditions-based capability."
On the ground in Afghanistan, those conditions remain tenuous. In eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have traditionally been strongest, only airstrikes and other help from the American-led military coalition kept the Taliban from seizing significant territory during last year's fighting season. The insurgents also pushed into parts of northern Afghanistan that were recently viewed as being firmly under government control.
Keeping the number of troops closer to 10,000 would also allow the American-led coalition to maintain two large bases in Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan, and in Jalalabad, the biggest city in the country's east. The base in Jalalabad is a hub for the collection of intelligence on Qaeda operations; it was, for instance, the base from which American forces launched the raid in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Despite the formal end of the American-led combat mission in Afghanistan, coalition forces are still regularly launching  airstrikes to support Afghan soldiers and police, and American Special Operations troops are still raiding remote villages and mountainside redoubts that shelter both Taliban fighters and operatives from Al Qaeda and other foreign extremist groups.
In Washington, officials have sought to draw a sharp line between the two groups, saying counterterrorism forces -- which number about 2,000 -- are in Afghanistan to target only those who pose a direct threat to the United States. The Taliban, whose main focus is toppling Afghanistan's government, is a problem for Afghan forces.
But distinctions on the ground are more blurred. Foreign fighters often work alongside Taliban insurgents, providing expertise.
To help Afghan forces, American commanders have also interpreted their mandate to target any insurgent, Taliban or otherwise, who intends to attack coalition or Afghan forces, allowing them to go after Taliban commanders and other insurgents.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.