US signals delay in troops pullout from Afghanistan

KABUL: President Barack Obama’s new Pentagon chief says the United States is seriously considering slowing the pace of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the country faces a growing Taliban insurgency.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s comments in Kabul on Saturday offered the clearest sign yet that Washington was ready to delay the closure of some bases and retain more troops after appeals by Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani and advice from commanders.

To safeguard “hard-won” progress, Obama “is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of US troops,” Carter said after talks with Afghan leaders.

“That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures to ensure we have the right array of coalition capabilities,” he said at a joint news conference with Ghani.

Carter’s visit comes amid a sharp rise in Afghan casualties from the 13-year conflict, with the UN recording a 22 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured in 2014 due to an intensification in ground fighting between government and insurgent forces.

It also comes as Obama faces a decision about the timetable for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong US force is due to drop to roughly 5000 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time Obama leaves office in two years.

The Obama administration already has delayed the pace of the withdrawal, allowing 1000 additional American forces to remain this year.

Afghan leaders and some lawmakers have warned that an early US exit could jeopardise security and international aid.

Carter said as part of the review of the pullout plan, Washington was also was “rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission” that currently targets al-Qaeda militants with raids by US and Afghan special forces and drone strikes.

Carter’s trip coincides with a concerted effort by Ghani to promote peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, with Pakistan voicing strong support for the initiative.

“The grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years,” Ghani said.

He said he was “hopeful” and “the direction is positive”. But he added: “We cannot make premature announcements.”