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How U.S. Troops Will Exit Afghanistan Remains Unclear

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U.S. Army soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar on August 13, 2015.

Obama's plan to leave 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of his term means he won't fulfill a promise to remove all American forces from that war zone. While he added the disclaimer, "I do not support the idea of endless war," he also said he's not disappointed.

"This modest but meaningful extension of our presence, while sticking to our current narrow missions, can make a real difference. It's the right thing to do," he said.

The president did not say how much longer American troops would remain in Afghanistan, and his defense secretary, Ash Carter, offered only a tenuous exit strategy.

"We're committed to helping the Afghan security forces defend themselves as long as there is an opposition to the government. But obviously, one hopes that that comes to an end. But that's not something that's in our hands," Carter said.

Others say the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee's Republican Chairman John McCain told NPR's Steve Inskeep he expected the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to be permanent.

"Just as we have a permanent presence in South Korea and in Japan and in Germany and other places where we've fought conflicts — does not mean that we would continue to see casualties," he said.

Avoiding casualties is a top priority for those leading the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. As long as Americans are not dying there, there is little domestic political pressure to leave, says George Washington University Afghanistan expert Stephen Biddle.

"The public has consistently for a long time now said they want out, and they want fewer troops rather than more," Biddle says. "But when they're then asked 'How important is this relative to a lot of other things?' they always say 'Not very.' "

In announcing his slowdown of the troop drawdown, Obama said there was only one way all U.S. troops could eventually be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

"By now it should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan's progress, the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government," he said.

But some experts think that's unlikely.

"Most of these conflicts end by one side winning and the other side losing," says Harvey Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former State Department Afghanistan analyst.

He doubts the Taliban would settle for anything less than a deal subjecting all of Afghanistan to the strictures of Sharia law.

"The facts on the ground have been for some time that the Taliban commanders there are not going to buy into making concessions toward the Kabul government, when they think that they're succeeding, and they have every reason to believe so," he says.

Stephen Biddle says the Taliban had shown some willingness to find a political settlement earlier this year, but that changed when the insurgents learned that their supposed leader had in fact been dead for two years.

"With the death of Mullah Omar, there's been a leadership struggle in the Taliban and substantial growth of a splinter breakaway faction that's now calling itself the Islamic State that is violently opposed to any kind of negotiation at all," he says.

Defense Secretary Carter said this week that over time, the U.S. will reduce its footprint in Afghanistan.

"Is it going to be 5,500 forever? There I can only say this: That is our best estimate now of what we should plan for and are planning for and budgeting for, for 2017," he says.

That's also the year a new president will inherit this war.

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