US to Delay Withdrawal of US Troops from Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama announced the extension of the current presence of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan into 2016, with a drawdown to 5,500 through the end of his term in 2017. The announcement is contrary to the administration’s earlier plans to withdraw the majority of US military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2017, leaving only “normal,” embassy-based military presence.

The President asserted that the troops in Afghanistan will continue to focus on their current two aims, training Afghanistan forces and targeting Al-Qaeda, pursuing a policy focused on counter-terrorism operations. The decision follows months of deliberation between US and Afghan officials and military personnel. Conditions on the ground have changed substantially since the administration set the 2017 withdraw deadline over two years ago. A recent resurgence of Taliban activity, including its retaking of the northern provincial capital Kunduz earlier this month, has prompted growing international concern about the preparedness of Afghan forces to ensure the country’s security. Afghan President Asraf Ghani welcomed the news, saying that the extension will provide much-needed help to domestic security forces. Other Afghan officials added that the US has a responsibility to help build economic infrastructure, while Obama mentioned the need for developing better governance as a long-term solution. A recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that only 10% of the economy of Afghanistan is legitimate, with black market business interests having taken advantage of improperly distributed foreign aid.

Observers note that Obama’s decision will extend US troop presence in Afghanistan into the next presidential term, likely politicizing the issue for the upcoming Presidential 2016 elections. Obama apologized last week for an October 3 strike on a Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz during the Taliban advance. The Swiss foreign ministry has announced that an international panel of experts awaits approval from the US and Afghan governments to being investigation of the strike. In 2011, the administration fulfilled the president’s promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. Yet due to the current security situation in the Middle East, the Obama administration discussed earlier this year the possibility of redeploying troops to Iraq as well.

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News Briefs:

  • Russian deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov has hinted that Russia is considering re-establishing border patrols on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. Speaking after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that both leaders were “very concerned with the situation in Tajikistan.” The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan’s northern provincial capital Kunduz earlier this month is part of what is seen as increased activity by Islamist groups near the border with Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s internal political situation has come under question after the secular-controlled government’s September ban on the only legal Islamic party in the country, and a string of arrests on the party’s officials following clashes between government forces and a group led by former deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. Russia discontinued border patrols in 2005 after an agreement with the local government.
  • Ukraine’s parliament approved an agreement reached in August with its largest group of creditors to ease repayment of its $18 billion debt. The deal includes a $3 billion write-down of Ukraine’s debt, and is intended to stabilize the national currency, allow the Ukrainian government to focus funds on the conflict in the country’s east, ensure supplies of gas to Ukraine through winter and alleviate poverty. Russia was the only party that abstained from the agreement, reasserting that Ukraine must repay the original amount owed on a $3 billion Eurobond by December, the maturity date. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk stated that the government would begin legal proceedings against Russia if it did not change its stance, mentioning private sector losses due to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The foreign minister has said that Ukraine plans to take a less than conciliatory tone towards Russia if given a temporary seat on the UN Security Council as expected.
  • reported that the implementation of the Nord Stream-2 project further reduces the chances for routing Russian gas through Turkey to Europe this winter. The Turkish Stream project came under question as Moscow-Ankara relations deteriorated over Russia’s involvement in Syria. The current political situation negates chances that a proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline will come to fruition. Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted recently that the Nord Stream-2 project is not meant to function as an alternative to Ukrainian routes or planned projects, and is rather intended to serve growing EU demand.
  • Kazakhstan’s National Bank announced plans to sell $3 billion  as part of a domestic forex (foreign exchange) auction to shore up the government budget. According to TengriNews, the bank will convert dollars in reserve to tenge before selling them, taking advantage of the current high exchange rate brought on by devaluation. Economist Olzhas Kudaibergenov asserted that the move would deter “populist criticism” that the Bank is spending its reserves on stabilizing interventions in the economy, instead giving the image that it is solely transferring funds from the reserves to the national budget. Kazakhstan’s government has recently taken steps to stabilize the exchange rate and national economy.
  • Russia and US officials reported that their militaries are finalizing a plan for air safety in Syria, after Russian fighter jets neared US air force jets this week. The Russian defense ministry maintains that the action was for identification purposes only and not intended towards intimidation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that US officials declined an offer made by Russian President Putin in late September to send a delegation to Moscow for high-level talks on the situation in Syria. The defense ministry added that it is ready to work with “all constructive forces in Syria” including Kurds, to fight against the Islamic state. Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow has begun to aid Iraqis and Kurds in the fight against Islamist insurgents in Iraq with the government’s consent.