By Phil Stewart
KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A once bustling military hub at the heart of America's war in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar Air Field seemed destined to quietly shut down this year as part of a U.S. withdrawal that had already thinned its numbers.
But, now, there appears to be growing signs that fate might be postponed, if only for a bit, as the United States weighs slowing the pace of the drawdown from Afghanistan.
New U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the sprawling complex on Sunday, but kept reporters guessing whether he thought it should remain operational longer - keeping a U.S. toe-hold in an important region of Afghanistan.
"My advice needs to go first to the president," Carter told reporters during his first trip since swearing-in on Tuesday.
The prospect of exiting Kandahar altogether has sounded alarms in Washington, where Republican lawmakers critical of President Barack Obama's withdrawal strategy note the region's importance to Taliban militants and the threat they pose.
"Kandahar is just not a spot on the map. That's the spiritual home of the Taliban," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham declared at a Senate hearing this month.
The Islamic State's rise in Iraq following the U.S.
withdrawal is stoking anxiety about potential backsliding in Afghanistan as Obama pursues plans to cut the roughly 10,000 U.S. troops by nearly half this year and then slash them further to an embassy presence at the end of 2016.
Kandahar Air Field is already a shadow of its former self, with just 2,600 coalition forces, down from a peak of 26,000. Still, it offers the United States important capabilities for advising Afghans and aiding counter-terrorism efforts.
The head of the Afghan National Army's 205th corps in Kandahar told Carter's delegation that America's contributions were vital, according to one U.S. official. Major General Abdullah Hamid said "I need you to be here," the official recounted, paraphrasing.
Carter praised U.S. forces in Kandahar during his visit.
"We've given so much to create the conditions here that you now see in front of you where the Afghan security forces stand a real shot at making success stick," Carter said.
"But it's still not done and it won't be done without what you are accomplishing here in Kandahar."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)