What you should know about US deployment in Afghanistan

This Jan 5, 2015 photo shows US soldiers arriving at the scene following a suicide car bomb attack on a European Union police vehicle in Kabul.
This Jan 5, 2015 photo shows US soldiers arriving at the scene following a suicide car bomb attack on a European Union police vehicle in Kabul.ST PHOTO: AFP

US President Barack Obama announced on Thursday (Oct 15) that thousands of American troops will remain in Afghanistan past 2016, retreating from a major campaign pledge as he admitted that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.

Under previous plans, Washington would draw down its troop numbers by the end of 2016 from about 10,000 currently to about 1,000.

But now, it will keep 9,800 military personnel in Afghanistan through much of next year and 5,500 will stay after 2017 to train and assist Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations.

Here's what you should know about the revised US deployment:

What is in the new plan?

Through much of 2016, a total of 9,800 US military personnel will remain in Afghanistan. The troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and will be based at four locations - Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. The decision on a new date for full US withdrawal will rest with the next US president.

The new plan allows the US military to continue with secret operations focused primarily in eastern Afghanistan against people it suspects of being militant leaders. Those operations are intended to follow a "lighter footprint" model of targeted strikes.

The military will also be able to maintain operations at Bagram Air Field to the north of Kabul, the main US hub in Afghanistan, and at bases outside Kandahar in the country's south and Jalalabad in the east. The bases are crucial for counter-terrorism operations and for flying drones used by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has also argued for keeping troops in Afghanistan to help protect its own assets.

Why the change in plan?

The Afghan military is still not ready to take on the security challenges, despite the US spending more than US$60 billion (S$83 billion) to train Afghan government troops and build their capacity since 2001.

"They cannot handle the fight alone in this stage of their development," said General John Campbell, who heads the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghan army lacks decent air capabilities to support troops on the ground, a crucial fighting element on rugged Afghan soil, Gen Campbell noted.

So far, it only has Russian Mi-17 helicopters and small MD-530 attack choppers, and is still waiting for 20 A-29 Super Tucano ground attack aircraft. The planes are due to be supplied by the US Air Force, with deliveries beginning next year.

The US-led coalition ended its combat mission in Afghanistan after 13 years of war at the end of 2014, and Afghan troops have since been in charge of the country's security, with help from US and Nato troops.

But their first year of leading security efforts has been brutally hard. Thousands have died, the Taleban has dealt them a string of blows and desertion rates are high. The militant group launched a successful offensive in Helmand province this summer and went on to briefly capture the city of Kunduz. In both instances, Afghan security forces needed support from US-led trainers and aircraft to tilt the balance back in their favour.

In addition, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has emerged as a new threat in Afghanistan.

How has Iraq influenced the US decision?

Though Mr Obama did not make any reference to Iraq, some experts said Iraq is one of the reasons for the change in plan. Four years ago, Mr Obama stuck to his plan to pull out of Iraq, only to watch the country collapse back into sectarian strife and a renewed war with Islamic extremists. Whether keeping a residual US force in Iraq would have made a difference is a point of contention, but the president chose not to take a chance this time.

While not openly drawing any lessons from the Iraq withdrawal, Mr Obama tried to draw an implicit distinction by emphasising that the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike the Baghdad government in 2011, supports US military presence and has taken the legal steps to make it possible.

As for Iraq, the Obama administration and the government of Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister, had negotiated over the possibility of keeping thousands of US troops there after 2011 but were bogged down in a dispute over a legal agreement limiting liability for US forces. Both sides eventually gave up and decided to stick to the original schedule for a 2011 withdrawal enshrined in an agreement reached between Presidents George W. Bush and Mr al-Maliki at the end of 2008.

Without a US presence, President al-Maliki turned increasingly sectarian, repressing Sunnis and aligning with Iran, which seemed to encourage the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mr Obama has since sent back about 3,000 US troops to help advise and assist the new Iraqi government's fight with the ISIS.

What's the response so far?

The Taleban said they would keep fighting until the US troops finally pull out of Afghanistan. "They were the ones who decided to invade Afghanistan. But it will be us who decide when they leave," said Taleban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. "When the attacks continue to mount on the occupiers and when they see they have to spend more money in their meaningless war, they will be forced to change their oppressive policy. Our jihad will continue until the last occupier is expelled," he said.

In the US, longtime critic John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he did not think the proposed rump body of 5,500 troops would be adequate for both counter-terrorism missions, as well as training and advising Afghan troops. "It would have been far better to halt all further troop withdrawals and allow President Obama's successor to determine what is warranted based on conditions on the ground," he said .

House Speaker John Boehner said he was "glad the administration finally admits President Obama's arbitrary political deadlines are 'self-defeating'."

Some said Mr Obama's actions did not go far enough to confront Al-Qaeda and other threats in Afghanistan. "While this new plan avoids a disaster, it is certainly not a plan for success," said Republican Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

How will Nato allies likely respond?

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said he believed Nato allies will renew or adjust their contributions to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan as Washington extends its mission. After Nato formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, between 17,000 and 18,000 international troops remain in Afghanistan.

SOURCES: AFP, NEW YORK TIMES