President Obama announced Tuesday that the United States and Afghanistan had made changes to the drawdown schedule for the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country.
Some troops will remain in Afghanistan longer under the new schedule, but will not serve in combat roles, according to the president. The troops, Obama said, would serve as advisers and trainers of afghan security forces.
The announcement was welcomed on Capitol Hill, including by Republicans currently debating the new defense budget.
At a news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House, Obama declined to comment on reports that Israel had been spying on nuclear negotiations the administration is holding with the government of Iran.
“As a general rule I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters. I think I’ll continue that tradition,” Obama said.
Obama was far more frank in his assessment of newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in the final hours of his campaign that he would prevent Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu attempted to reframe those comments a day later, suggesting that he could be open to statehood one day under certain conditions, but not now.
Obama said he took Netanyahu at his word on the eve of the election, adding, “A lot of voters in Israel took him to say that pretty unequivocally.” Obama said Netanyahu’s position had forced the administration to reconsider a future diplomatic role.
“I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the coming years,” Obama said.
Obama did not say whether his administration would consider dropping its veto at the United Nations when it comes to Israel-focused resolutions. The American ability to protect Israel in that forum has been predicated in the last four decades on a commitment from Israel and its neighbors toward the peaceful resolution of regional conflict.
For nearly 25 year, successive U.S. administrations have worked to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. For the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry devoted more than a year to try to reach such a deal. But Obama said Tuesday that it’s “hard to envision how that happens based on the prime minister’s statements.”
He described his relationship with Netanyahu as “very business-like,” a stark contrast contrast to the warm friendship on display between Obama and Afghanistan’s newly elected leader. Ghani is set to address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure Afghan security forces succeed so that we don’t have to go back,” Obama said at the press conference
The U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of the year at Ghani’s request. The original plan called for that number being slashed to 5,500. Troop levels for 2016 will be decided later this year, Obama added.
“Providing this additional time frame during this fighting season, for us to be able to help the Afghanistan security forces succeed, is well worth it,” Obama said.
The announcement comes as the spring fighting season begins and Islamic extremists continue to look toward Afghanistan as grounds for recruiting.
Ghani said keeping U.S. troop levels up “is what will guarantee that the investments over the last 14 years pay off.”
The two leaders said they hoped to begin a “new chapter” in the relationship between the two countries. Ghani succeeds former President Hamid Karzai, whose rocky relationship with the White House made a America’s longest war even more complicated. In fact, Obama took a swipe at Karzai at the press conference Tuesday, saying that Ghani has more successfully taken up the mantle as the country’s commander in cheif.
NBC News contributed reporting.