BRUSSELS — Urged on by the United States, NATO is open to keeping more troops in Afghanistan than initially planned after 2016, but officials said Thursday the alliance is waiting for the Obama administration to announce its decision on a larger military presence there.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he discussed the issue with a number of NATO allies Thursday and asked them to consider abandoning their earlier plans to cut troop levels in Afghanistan to just a small presence at the end of next year.
"I have asked all of the NATO partners to remain flexible and to consider the possibility of making adjustments to the plan, which is now two-and-a-half years old, for the presence in Afghanistan," Carter told reporters during a meeting of NATO defense ministers. "I was very pleased to hear ministers of defense from our NATO allies reaffirm their commitment, discussing not whether but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan."
Carter's reference to the "two-and-a-half year old" plan, which had the U.S. leaving just 1,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2016, lent credence to suggestions that the Obama administration is likely to affirm military commanders' requests and leave several thousand troops there instead, because fighting between the Taliban and Afghans continues.
The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell made that argument to Congress Thursday, saying that drawing the force down to 1,000 by the end of next year will limit coalition training and counterterrorism operations.
"If we came down to 1,000 — there is no counterterrorism structured force in those numbers," Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee.
U.S. officials have said that the military has argued to keep several thousand there, and they say that the White House has not ruled out such a shift.
Obama has long said that he wanted to end the war and cut the U.S. force level in Afghanistan to about 1,000 by the end of his presidency. But he has given commanders the flexibility to slow the drawdown in the coming months as needed to meet security threats.
Campbell said 1,300 of the 9,800 American service men and women in Afghanistan are involved in everyday training, assisting and advising of Afghan national security forces, but only about 500 are operating outside of Kabul.
Earlier this week, he told a Senate committee that he thought the number should be revised upward because much has changed since Obama laid out his drawdown plan. He said the Afghan forces, while improving, still need help in many areas, including close air support, intelligence and maintenance.
After Thursday's hearing, committee chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said NATO countries are going to follow the U.S.
"U.S. leadership is what matters. I don't think NATO is going to be there if we're not there. If we are there, then I do think these other countries will contribute," Thornberry said.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen echoed those sentiments to reporters at the NATO meeting, saying that the alliance should not set timelines, but should focus more on how things are going in Afghanistan. She said NATO needs to "look at how we go forward and whether we should stay longer."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the alliance's decisions will be made based on a detailed security assessment that will determine the size of the force, where they will be based and how long they will stay. He predicted a decision in the coming weeks, but other officials suggested Obama could make his plans known fairly soon.
Carter also said that NATO allies have indicated they would be willing to continue funding Afghanistan's security forces.
The NATO discussions come just days after a U.S. airstrike mistakenly hit a hospital during a fierce fight in the northern city of Kunduz, killing 22 people. Afghan forces have regained control of the city, which was seized by the Taliban last week, and troops continue to go house-to-house Thursday to clear pockets of remaining insurgents.
Stoltenberg noted the Kunduz tragedy and underscored the need for a full, thorough and transparent investigation.
He also said the security situation in Afghanistan remains challenging, and NATO will assess the capabilities of the Afghan forces as it works to decide how long alliance troops will remain in the country and at what levels.
He added that even after Resolute Support, as the current mission is known, ends, NATO will continue to support Afghanistan and launch and enduring partnership with the country.
In other comments on Capitol Hill, Campbell estimated that more than half of Taliban insurgents could be open to peace talks with the Afghan government, but that negotiations probably won't resume for months.
He noted that the Haqqani network, which has been responsible for many attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces and suicide bombings, as well as remnants of the al-Qaida network in in Afghanistan are not as open to peace. And he warned about a rise of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan.
He said some disgruntled Taliban are switching their allegiance to the Islamic State.