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Obama Announces Decision To Delay Withdrawal Of U.S. Troops From Afghanistan


We begin this hour with President Obama's decision to delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It was a move not only recommended by Obama's military advisors. It was also requested by the Afghan government. We start our coverage with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The announcement today is a big departure from the President's original plan for Afghanistan. Here's what he said back in May of 2014.


BARACK OBAMA: By the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul with a security assistance component, just as we've done in Iraq.

LIASSON: That would have been 1,000 troops, the bare minimum. But facts on the ground did not cooperate. Today, the president said the Taliban have made gains and can launch deadly attacks in cities including the Afghan capital of Kabul. And the president said Afghan forces are not as strong as they need to be.


OBAMA: The bottom line is, in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile. And in some places, there's risk of deterioration.

LIASSON: Obama insisted that while the strategy is shifting, the mission will not change. U.S. troops will still have two main tasks - counterterrorism - fighting against a resurgent Al Qaeda to deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan - and training and advising the Afghan Security Forces. There are currently around 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They will stay longer through most of 2016. And then the President said...


OBAMA: I've decided that instead of going down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, we will maintain 5,500 troops at a small number of bases, including at Bagram, Jalalabad in the East and Kandahar in the South.

LIASSON: In 2012, President Obama was clear that he wanted his legacy to be an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The announcement today means that will not happen on his watch. But Michael O'Hanlon, a former Clinton administration official and the author of "The Future Of Land Warfare" says the President has been willing to escalate involvement when it's needed to combat terrorism.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: There's actually a consistency here even though it's a begrudging consistency and one that he would've preferred to avoid, in a sense.

LIASSON: But critics say 5,500 troops will not be enough. O'Hanlon says the number is less important than the fact that the U.S. footprint will remain and can easily be expanded.

O'HANLON: The way President Obama has laid out this plan is that we don't actually have to do a specific number by a specific time. And even if we did hit 5,500 briefly, the next president could ramp that back up. In other words, we're still going to have the infrastructure. We're still going to have the working relationship.

LIASSON: President Obama said this isn't the first time the timeline or troop levels have been adjusted, and it won't be the last. So it looks like America's longest war will probably last a lot longer and will be waged by whoever is the next commander in chief. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.