Obama slows Afghanistan troop withdrawal


Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday reversed plans to withdraw about 5,000 US troops from Afghanistan this year, an overture to the country's new reform-minded leader.

Hosting Ashraf Ghani at the White House for a first presidential head-to-head, Obama agreed to keep the current level of 9,800 US troops in the war-torn country until the end of 2015.

"President Ghani had requested some flexibility on our drawdown timelines," Obama said at a joint news conference, adding a decision to meet that request "reflects our reinvigorated partnership with Afghanistan."

"We want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed."

The decision means Afghan forces -- now leading the fight against Taliban militants -- will have air and other crucial US support through this year's fighting season, which begins in weeks.

Ghani took charge six months ago after protracted power-sharing negotiations and has embraced US calls for Afghanistan's 350,000 security forces to lead.

But the 2014 April-October fighting season was one of the most bloody on record, exposing their poor command, insufficient training and a lack of crucial equipment.

In a stark reminder of the violence still wracking Afghanistan, gunmen killed 13 bus passengers in a province close to Kabul early on Tuesday.

Ghani vowed that the breathing space provided by Obama "will be used to accelerate reforms, to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces are much better led, equipped, trained and are focused on the fundamental mission."

But it is a temporary reprieve. Obama indicated he would hold fast on a promise to withdraw almost all troops by 2017, when he is set to leave office.

He also stressed that US troops still in Afghanistan "are not on the frontlines because they're not in a combat role," as he praised the "courage and tenacity" of Afghan forces.

"As we've drawn down, they've stood up and they're fighting," he said. "They're getting better month by month."

As candidate and president Obama has prioritized ending America's longest-ever war, which has been raging for more than 13 years and cost more than 2,200 American lives.

- 'Thank you'-

Ghani's visit is designed to turn the page on years of distrust during the presidency of his mercurial predecessor Hamid Karzai.

Karzai repeatedly criticized US officials for what he called interference in his country, while aides in Washington privately raged that Karzai was feckless, paranoid and tolerant of corruption.

In a strikingly different approach, Ghani thanked US troops for more than a decade of sacrifice since the 2001 toppling of a Taliban government by a US-led invasion.

"You stood shoulder to shoulder with us and I'd like to say thank you," Ghani said hours after undertaking a deeply symbolic visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

"The 2,215 Americans that have died must not die in vain. They must leave behind a legacy of a stable Afghanistan.

"I would also like to thank the American taxpayer for his and her hard-earned dollars that has enabled us."

Obama replied that "we're grateful for that gesture of gratitude."

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