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President Obama to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after drawdown

The president decided the number after speaking with U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan

Soldiers take photos as President Barack Obama, center, shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks Sunday at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Soldiers take photos as President Barack Obama, center, shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks Sunday at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Barack Obama will announce this afternoon that he wants to leave 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after the formal troop drawdown at the end of this year, senior administration officials said.

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

Obama was to make the announcement in a 2:45 p.m. statement in the White House Rose Garden.

The United States now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. 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 counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.

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 U.S. 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.

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.

Karzai’s refusal to sign the agreement has exacerbated concerns about the country’s prospects for stability as the Taliban insurgency rages on and has contributed to a steep economic downturn in recent months.

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

Most of the U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will have been withdrawn by the end of this year, part of what Obama calls a “responsible end” to the longest war in U.S. history.

“We want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win. And we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country,” Obama said at Bagram on Sunday. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)