Additional 1,000 US troops would stay is Afghanistan: Hagel

KABUL: US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Kabul on Saturday on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in the final weeks of NATO’s US-led 13-year war against the Taliban.
Hagel told reporters before landing that Afghanistan had ‘come a long way’ over the past decade and that a newly-elected Afghan government and its army were ready to take charge as the bulk of the international force departs by the end of the month.
In the meanwhile, outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to defend Kabul following a spike in Taliban strikes as he arrived in the Afghan capital on Saturday for his final trip to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief.
Hagel’s unannounced visit came near the end of the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001, and after a particularly violent wave of attacks in the capital. It also came just weeks before the official end of the NATO-led combat mission and a sharp reduction in western forces.
‘I have confidence that the Afghan security forces have the capacity to defend Kabul,’ Hagel told reporters before landing in Kabul, where he is expected to discuss security in talks with Afghan leaders and U.S. commanders. A U.S. defense official travelling with Hagel played down the attacks, which led the Kabul police chief to offer his resignation last weekend. ‘It is a spike. It seems like it’s been a concerted effort by the Taliban to conduct high profile attacks to create perceptions of instability,’ the official said.
As of early November, about 4,600 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed in 2014, more than 6 percent higher than the same period of 2013. Even as U.S. officials including Hagel praised the accomplishments of Afghan forces as foreign troops moved into a support role, the high rate of Afghan casualties is seen as unsustainable. It has also raised questions about their vulnerability when U.S. forces fall to about 10,000 next year.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s drawdown strategy has attracted criticism, including from Republicans in Congress, who say the hard-fought gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal. Hagel, who resigned last week under pressure, warned against drawing comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, saying Afghans want U.S. forces to stay. ‘Are there (security) gaps? Are there continued challenges? And threats? Absolutely,’ Hagel acknowledged, noting Afghanistan would still struggle with ‘pockets’ of Taliban resistance. The Taliban have become increasingly bold in their attacks and control several districts across a country where access to many areas is still limited by rugged terrain and poor security. Afghan infrastructure is poor. Graft is rife. The economy relies mostly on foreign aid. An additional 1,000 US troops will remain in Afghanistan next year to meet a temporary shortfall in NATO forces, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday during a visit to Kabul.
President Barack Obama approved the move despite an earlier plan to limit the US force to a maximum of 9,800 troops in 2015. A protracted Afghan election delayed the signing of security deals with the United States and NATO countries, which set back plans for Western governments to contribute troops to the post-2014 mission, named ‘Operation Resolute Support’, Hagel said. Due to ‘delays in signing these agreements, the force generation effort for (Operation) Resolute Support is several months behind where we hoped it would be at this time’, Hagel told reporters.
‘As a result, President Obama has provided US military commanders the flexibility to manage any temporary force shortfall that we might experience for a few months as we allow for coalition troops to arrive in theatre.’ ‘This will mean the delayed withdrawal of up to 1,000 US troops – so that up to 10,800 troops, rather than 9,800, could remain in Afghanistan through the end of this year, and for the first few months in 2015.’
Hagel said Obama’s decision did not change the mission for the troops next year – which will focus on training Afghan forces – nor did it alter a long-term deadline for a US troop drawdown over the next two years. The Pentagon chief also said US forces would maintain ‘a limited counter-terrorism mission’ against Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan. Washington was ‘committed to preventing Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States,’ he said.