Addressing a joint press conference with President Ashraf Ghani in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the departing US secretary of defense said that the Obama administration was abandoning its earlier plan to reduce the troop level to 9,800 by the end of this year. Hagel, however, said that the new strategy was not linked to the recent surge in Taliban attacks.
"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 of next year," Hagel told reporters in Kabul.
"President Obama has provided US military commanders the flexibility to manage any temporary shortfalls that we might experience for a few months as we allow for coalition troops to arrive," he added.
The Pentagon chief also said the US forces would maintain a small-scale counterterrorism mission to prevent al Qaeda and other organizations from "using Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States."
In 2016 Washington plans to scale back to 5,500 troops, and further reduce the number to a mere embassy presence in 2017. US combat forces will withdraw from the war-torn South Asian country by the end of this month, and the task of the remaining soldiers would be to provide training to local forces.
Optimism about Afghanistan
A recent surge in Taliban attacks on foreigners has made Western nations apprehensive about the future of Afghanistan. But the US Defense Secretary, who is on his final visit to the country, expressed optimism about the ability of the Afghan army to stabilize the country and efficiently combat the Islamist insurgents.
"The Taliban are going to continue to have pockets of resurgence, and it is predictable that they would do everything they possibly could to disrupt the new Afghan government under Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah," Hagel said in an interview with reporters who were traveling with him from Washington to Kabul.
"I have confidence in the Afghan security forces that they will continue to meet these challenges," he said.
Barack Obama announced on Friday that Hagel, who resigned from his post on November 24, would be replaced by his former deputy, Ashton Carter.
shs/mkg (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)