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Obama to announce delay in military withdrawal from Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will announce Thursday that U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan at their current levels throughout much of 2016, marking yet another delay in the administration’s plans for completing its withdrawal from the 14-year conflict.

The decision to maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until nearly the end of Obama’s time in office comes after months of discussions with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, and the nation’s CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, senior administration officials said Wednesday night. Obama also consulted with U.S. military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan as well as his entire national security team, officials added.

According to the new White House plan, the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan would drop to 5,500 by early 2017, as Obama prepares to leave office. At that point, U.S. forces would be based in the Afghan capital of Kabul, as well as in military installations in Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

“The President will announce the results of what has been extensive and months long review,” a senior administration official said.

This is the second draw-down delay announced by Obama this year. In March, Obama said he planned to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan 5,500 hundred U.S. military personnel by the end of this year, and then to an “embassy-only” presence by the end of 2016.

“The timeline for a withdrawal down to a embassy center presence, a normalization of our presence in Afghanistan, remains the end of 2016,” Obama said in a joint press conference with Ghani last March.

Administration officials stressed U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan would continue to serve under two missions — to root out remnants of al Qaeda as well as train and equip Afghan security forces. U.S. forces could also conduct counterterrorism operations against elements of ISIS in Afghanistan, should the group present a threat to the U.S. homeland, senior administration officials added.

The original White House goal was to hand over the counterterrorism side of the U.S. mission to Afghan security forces this year.

“It’s in our interest to build up the Afghan security forces,” said a senior administration official.

The estimated annual cost of maintaining current U.S. force levels in Afghanistan is $14.6 billion, a separate senior administration official said.