Civilian officials expect top military commanders to resist calls for steep reductions. Military leaders maintain that the 30,000-troop surge and an increase in civilian reconstruction efforts have resulted in a dramatic turnaround of what had been a foundering war, creating the possibility of a reasonably stable nation.
They insist that a rapid withdrawal of forces would make that goal unachievable by rolling back territorial gains against the Taliban and jeopardizing efforts to develop Afghan security forces and build government institutions. U.S. military officers also contend that the aim of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban — an outcome espoused by the White House and the State Department, but not as vigorously embraced by top commanders — would be at risk if there were fewer troops to pressure the insurgents.
“We’re at a critical point in the war,” one senior military official said. “If we send the message that we’re letting up, what incentive does the Taliban have to make a deal with us?”
Civilian officials argue that recent gains against the Taliban and al-Qaeda have largely been the result of a counterterrorism strategy implemented by Special Operations forces, not the costly, large-footprint counterinsurgency mission that aims to secure the country district by district. Reducing conventional forces, some civilians assert, will not fundamentally alter the calculus that has led to interest among Taliban leaders in exploring peace talks with the Afghan government and U.S. representatives.
“Our mission is to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaeda, and what the bin Laden killing shows us is that you can do that with a small number of highly skilled guys,” the second senior official said. “You don’t need Army and Marine battalions in dozens of districts.”
Concern about war costs is putting new political pressure on Obama, much of it from fellow Democrats. On Thursday, the House narrowly defeated an amendment calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fixed timetable for turning over military operations to the Kabul government. The vote, 204 to 215, was far thinner than last year’s 162-to-260 tally on the same issue.
In the Senate, influential members have said recently that the cost of the war merits a reexamination of the overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. “It is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight,” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said this month.
Some Republican presidential hopefuls also are beginning to have second thoughts about the scope of the war, which White House officials think could provide political cover to Obama as he pursues a drawdown. Among those who have questioned the cost is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who told ABC News that “we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan,” which he called “heavy and very expensive.”