The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that "some hundreds" of U.S. forces — in addition to the 8,400 that President Barack Obama announced would stay in the country last week — will be based outside Afghanistan, but will be ready to quickly deploy into the warzone if needed.
The decision to place troops outside the country raises questions about the actual reduction in troop totals, since any number of the hundreds could be moved quickly in and out of the country on any given day.
Army Gen. John Nicholson told reporters that about 400 of the forces deployed outside Afghanistan will be part of the U.S. commitment to the NATO advise-and-assist mission.
"I'm very comfortable with them being where they are and we can call them forward if necessary, and we can reach back for support," Nicholson told reporters at a briefing during Defense Secretary Ash Carter's visit to Afghanistan Tuesday. "I'm very comfortable that we're going to be able to accomplish both of those missions with this level of manning. And it provides me all the capabilities that I need to get the job done."
Allies who have troops in the country, including Germany and Italy, and U.S. military leaders had pressed the U.S. to continue to provide the security and logistics support they get now. They are concerned that Obama's plan to reduce current troop levels of 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year would reduce that support too much.
Those concerns played a role in Obama's decision to keep 8,400 in the country.
Nicholson told reporters he will have about 3,000 U.S. troops working as advisers in Afghanistan, roughly 2,150 troops doing counterterrorism and 3,300 working in supporting roles.
He said the hundreds of forces outside Afghanistan, in addition to the 8,400, will be "over the horizon," but officials would not say where.
Nicholson also said he is using new military authorities Obama granted — including airstrikes against the Taliban and other support to Afghan troops — "almost daily in support of the Afghans to enable them to take the offense."
For example, he said he provided U.S. combat support troops to help the Afghans fight around the northern city of Kunduz.
Carter's short stop in Afghanistan came in the wake of a commitment by NATO allies at a summit in Warsaw last week, to keep troop levels stable as they battle a resilient Taliban.
Speaking during a press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Carter also said that progress by the Afghanistan government on economic and anti-corruption reforms "is central" to the continued international support for the country.
Ghani said his government is working to remove corruption and improve the economy.
Tuesday was Carter's second stop in a war zone in as many days, part of a weeklong trip that has underscored America's growing commitment to two wars that Obama inherited but has not been able to end. On Monday in Iraq, Carter announced that the U.S. would be sending 560 additional troops there in the coming days and weeks.
While in Afghanistan, Carter also met with Ghani and the country's chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, in Kabul, gathered with Nicholson and other commanders, and then spoke to troops at Bagram Air Field.