Reuters International

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg chairs a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir


By Phil Stewart and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States told allies on Wednesday it was reexamining plans to cut its troop numbers in Afghanistan next year, Britain said, as other NATO forces committed to stay on to help fight a resurgent Taliban.

President Barack Obama has planned to slash the number of U.S. troops from about 9,800 to 5,500 before he leaves office in 2017, despite calls from former commanders and envoys to halt the drawdown.

"Everyone has an interest that our effort there is sustained," Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters.

"That's why as (U.S. Defense Secretary) Ash Carter told us, the troop numbers are being looked at again ... This is the wrong time to walk away from Afghanistan."

Carter declined to confirm that however, telling a news conference it was not formally a topic of discussion at a NATO ministers' meeting on Wednesday. But he said Obama remained willing to review security in Afghanistan and its impact on force levels.

"The president has indicated consistently ... he is willing to look at the U.S. force presence on the basis of circumstances in Afghanistan and he is expected to do that at the end of the year. He has expressed a willingness to do that but that was not a topic of discussion at today's meeting, per se," Carter said.

European allies are worried about a collapse of security in Afghanistan because of the increased numbers of refugees they fear it would bring as the continent is struggling to deal with uncontrolled migrant flows.

Despite military dominance since 2001 and billions of dollars in investment, the United States and its allies face fresh Taliban gains against Afghan security forces.

In recognition of that, NATO agreed on Wednesday to hold onto its broad geographic layout of bases in Afghanistan, a move that could make it easier for the United States to keep more troops there.


NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said several nations also committed to a troop presence next year in Afghanistan.

"With a regional presence, we will continue to advise, train and assist the Afghan national forces because we are very committed to continuing to support Afghans," Stoltenberg said.

The United States contributes 6,800 troops to NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, which will fall to 3,400 under the current plan, a senior NATO diplomat said.

Forces from other NATO nations in Afghanistan total about 6,900. Washington also has a unilateral counter-terrorism mission there.

NATO's "hub-and-spoke" model for training and advising Afghan forces extends well beyond the capital Kabul to allow an international military presence at regional bases. NATO policymakers have been examining whether it is possible to keep those bases open as force levels fall.

"I believe we'll have sufficient resources, and our military commanders have told us we'll have sufficient resources, to stay in the basic posture," the senior diplomat said.

The diplomat, speaking to a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity, expected NATO leaders to agree to some $5 billion in funding to sustain Afghan security forces at the current levels through 2020.

The current NATO commitment to fund the Afghan security forces only extends through 2017.

The funding is based on a goal of maintaining 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police. The official roster currently includes about 320,000 members of the security forces, a U.S. military commander said earlier this week.

(Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Andrew Roche)


 Reuters International