The U.S. military is delaying the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops through the first few months of 2015, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday.
The decision means that up to 10,800 troops, rather than 9,800, could remain in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led combat mission winds down at the end of December.
"We are committed to preventing Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States, our allies and partners and the Afghan people," Hagel said. "We will take appropriate measures against Taliban members who directly threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, or provide direct support to Al Qaeda."
Hagel made the announcement alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace here in what's expected to be his final visit as Defense secretary.
Taliban attacks intensified this summer and fall in Afghanistan while the U.S. and its allies closed hundreds of bases and turned over responsibility for most combat operations to the Afghan army, which suffered its worst casualties in years. But Hagel said the delay in troop withdrawals had little to do with the increase in violence, and instead was brought on by repeated delays in key agreements.
Last month, the Afghan government approved the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, which extended U.S. presence in the country through 2016.
However, the effort is several months behind where the military had hoped it would be by now, Hagel said.
"As a result, President Obama has provided U.S. military commanders the flexibility to manage any temporary force shortfall that we might experience for a few months as we allow for coalition troops to arrive," he said.
But the president's authorization will not change the long-term time line for drawdown, Hagel said, which will put the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at 5,500 by 2016 and around 1,000 by 2017.
How much fighting they will see depends on hard-to-predict factors, such as the continuing strength of the 13-year-old insurgency and the effectiveness of Afghanistan's own security forces.
The move is a clear indication that the U.S. role in Afghanistan after the end of the year will not be limited to training Afghan forces and conducting occasional small raids against the remnants of Al Qaeda, which is how White House officials had been portraying the post-2014 mission.