Obama’s Afghan plan is not a ‘withdrawal’ but a ‘transition,’ U.S. commander says

President Obama’s plan to remove all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 “is not a zero option . . . not a withdrawal plan,” the commander of U.S. and international forces there said Wednesday.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said the plan he expects to implement, following Obama’s announcement last week, is a “transition” that bears no resemblance to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Under the plan, nearly 14,000 U.S., NATO and other international troops will remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of combat forces at the end of this year.

Components of that number, according to a senior U.S. military official, include 12,000 conventional troops made up of about 8,000 from the United States and 4,000 from NATO members and others who will train and advise Afghan security forces.

To reach Obama’s announced total of 9,800, the United States will also deploy a counterterrorism force of about 1,800, according to the official. The figures are the first approximate breakdown of the U.S. forces.

“The president’s decision” on overall troop strength “for us starts the detailed planning for the [counterterrorism] mission,” the military official said.

Obama said he would cut U.S. forces roughly in half at the end of 2015, to what the military official said would be about 5,500. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss figures that have not yet been made public, said the breakdown between conventional and counterterrorism forces will depend on conditions on the ground.

At the end of 2016, the only U.S. troops remaining will be a force of several hundred assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to handle defense sales and military education programs.

Dunford briefed NATO defense ministers meeting here as the alliance began to review transition plans that will be formalized at a “force generation” conference later this month and be adopted by government leaders at NATO’s September summit in Wales.

The United States and its allies in Afghanistan have expressed confidence that Afghanistan’s new president, to be elected in a June 14 runoff, will sign the necessary bilateral security agreement and NATO status-of-forces accord to permit the post-2014 deployments.

“Right now, I don’t have any concerns [about] getting to 12,000” for the conventional force, said Dunford, who briefed a small group of reporters who traveled to the NATO conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Germany, Italy and Turkey each has indicated it will leave 600 to 800 troops in Afghanistan next year, based respectively in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, Herat in the west and Kabul. Those forces will be supplemented in each location by contributions from NATO and non-NATO countries that have troops in the international force under Dunford’s command in Afghanistan.

“We have not yet taken positions on the exact figures, but of course the United States announcement gives you an indication of the size of the future . . . mission,” to be called Resolute Support, said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“We haven’t yet taken a decision on the duration” of the mission, including after 2015, Rasmussen said. “Right now, we’ll concentrate on the establishment” of the mission, he said.

Rasmussen emphasized NATO’s ongoing commitment to provide annual financial support for Afghanistan’s 352,000 combined military and police forces through 2017. An initial commitment is for $4.1 billion a year — about half of it from the United States. Dunford last year asked that the U.S. amount be increased by $600 million to $800 million.

U.S. and NATO officials described a Taliban force that has been greatly debilitated since the beginning of this year and pointed to the successful first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election in April as a defeat for the militants. The top two vote-getters are competing in next week’s runoff to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign the bilateral security and status-of-forces agreements.

“In the wake of the election, for the first time . . . the Taliban are on the defensive in the information space,” the senior military official said. For 10 years, he said, the Taliban has had two messages — that the United States was occupying their country and ultimately would abandon it. In the wake of the turnover of combat operations to Afghan national forces over the past year, and Obama’s announcement for the future, those messages have less resonance, the official said. The coalition has made clear, the official said, that we “won’t fall off the cliff at the end of 2014.”

Dunford described “friction” within the Taliban and said that although the militants are still carrying out lethal attacks against Afghan forces, “if you compare the political space of the Taliban, it’s significantly reduced.”

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