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US plans to keep 9,800 troops after Afghan exit


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Photo - Reuters

Washington: US President Barack Obama was to announce on Tuesday that he wants to leave 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after the formal troop drawdown at the end of this year, senior officials said.

The number emerged after Obama held talks with US military commanders at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Sunday as the United States winds down a war begun in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Obama was to make the announcement in a 2:45 pm EDT (1845 GMT) statement in the White House Rose Garden.

The United States now has about 32,000 army personnel on the ground in  Afghanistan.

US officials are expressing increasing confidence that the next Afghan president will sign a bilateral security agreement that Obama wants before the United States will agree to leave behind troops to help train Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations against Al Qaeda.

Reduced to half
Under the scenario envisioned by Obama, the 9,800 troops would remain behind into next year. By the end of 2015, that number would be reduced by roughly half, the officials said.

By the end of 2016, the US presence would be cut to a normal embassy presence with a security assistance office in Kabul, as has been done in Iraq, the officials added.

With Afghans about to elect a new president, the United States is looking past the tenure of current Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who had irked Obama by refusing to sign a bilateral security treaty.

Security agreement
The two leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential race, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both pledged to sign the security agreement as soon as possible should they be elected in the second round of voting set for June 14.

"Assuming a BSA is signed, at the beginning of 2015, we will have 9,800 US service members in different parts of the country, together with our Nato allies and other partners," one senior official said.

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