US to leave bigger force in Afghanistan than planned in 2015

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Kabul, Dec 7: The US would have more troops in Afghanistan than it initially planned to, at the start of next year, the outgoing US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday.

During a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Hagel said that up to 10,800 troops would remain in Afghanistan at the start of 2015, though the earlier plan was to keep 1,000 fewer troops, CNN reported.

US army

Hagel said that US President Barack Obama authorised the change in troop size in order to provide military commanders "flexibility".

However Hagel said: "The President's authorisation will not change our troops' missions, or the long-term timeline for our withdrawal."

There has been growing instability in Kabul, with an uptick in Taliban attacks in recent weeks, which according to Hagel, came as no surprise.

"It's predictable that they would do everything they could to disrupt and discourage the new government of President Ghani," he said.

However, the spike in violence in the Afghan capital was not a factor in the decision to keep more US troops in the country next year, a defence department official said.

The decision is perceived to be taken on account of the late signing of the bilateral security agreement, which allows a specified number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends this year.

In spite of the attacks, the Pentagon said that the Afghan forces were performing "well", and are now in the lead on 99 percent of the missions.

Hagel arrived in Afghanistan Saturday to assess the situation as the US begins the drawdown of its forces.

He said the people of Afghanistan are far better off today than they were 13 years ago, pointing towards an elected government and a national security force.

"They're not completely there yet, but they've come a long way," Hagel said.

"That's to the credit certainly of the US; the sacrifice, the blood and the treasure that we've made there."

According to official sources, the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan will be "gradual" compared with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

In 2016, the number of troops will slide down to 5,500 and by 2017 the coalition will consolidate to Kabul.

"As we draw down the combat mission, we have not forgotten what brought the US to Afghanistan over a decade ago," Hagel said.

IANS

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