In Afghanistan pullout, Pentagon favors phased reduction over 3 years

The Pentagon is pushing a plan that would keep about 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan once the NATO military mission there ends in 2014 but significantly shrink the contingent over the following two years, according to senior U.S. government officials and military officers.

The phased-reduction approach, which would define the shape of the United States’ endgame in Afghanistan, represents an effort to strike a compromise between top military commanders, who had wanted to base about 10,000 U.S. troops in the country after 2014, and several of President Obama’s senior civilian advisers, who have advocated a far smaller long-term U.S. presence.

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Obama plans to announce in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that 34,000 U.S. troops will return from Afghanistan within a year, the Associated Press reported. That drawdown covers about half the U.S. forces currently deployed there and marks the next phase in the administration’s plan to terminate the U.S. and NATO combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, AP reported, citing two officials familiar with Obama’s remarks.

As for the U.S. presence after 2014, military commanders fear that a drastic reduction in forces will erode hard-won battlefield gains, while administration officials worry that a large, enduring troop presence will come at too great a cost in dollars and lives.

Although a consensus is emerging among White House and Pentagon officials about the merits of a phased reduction, Obama’s top aides and military commanders have not coalesced around the size of the trims after 2014, said the officials and officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal policy deliberations. The proposals under consideration call for reducing the U.S. presence by early 2016 to between 3,500 and 6,000 troops. One option under serious discussion envisages further reducing troop levels to under 1,000 by early 2017, with most of the personnel operating from the giant U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Under that option, elite Special Operations commandos would not be based in Afghanistan after 2016, senior military officials said. They would swoop into the country from ships or bases in nearby nations to conduct counterterrorism missions, operating from facilities run jointly with Afghan forces.

Before discussions about the phased reduction, White House officials had been considering plans to reduce the U.S. presence to as few as 2,500 troops by January 2015.

Military commanders would prefer to retain as many as 3,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2017 and beyond, but they appear to be willing to accept White House demands to keep the number under 1,000. “We can live with this,” said a senior U.S. official aligned with the military leadership. A smaller troop presence in 2017 “doesn’t really matter so long as you have the upfront guys for the first year.”

The commanders have argued that a large enduring force is necessary to support Afghanistan’s army, which lacks many critical tools, including combat aircraft and medical evacuation helicopters, to aid soldiers fighting the Taliban. But White House advisers, and even some senior civilian officials in the Pentagon, have been skeptical that a few thousand more U.S. troops would be able to help transform the much-troubled Afghan army into an effective fighting force.

Once the White House and Pentagon reach a formal agreement, it will be presented to the Afghan government, which must grant permission for U.S. forces to operate in the country after 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has voiced support for a continued U.S. military presence, though the decision — and the provision of immunity to American forces — may require the consent of the country’s often-fractious parliament.

About 66,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan. Obama is expected to announce soon the number of troops he intends to bring home this year. White House officials have said that they want to settle on a post-2014 plan before determining the size of this year’s reduction.

The phased approach acknowledges the concerns of senior U.S. commanders that the Afghan army will need extensive help after 2014, but it also seeks to limit costly ongoing assistance — a key demand of Obama’s civilian advisers — in an attempt to force the Afghans to develop their own support services by 2017.

“We need to ensure that our presence there doesn’t act as a crutch. The Afghans have to recognize that this is their moment to step up and take more responsibility,” said a senior Obama administration official who favors a small post-2014 presence. “If they can’t do everything we want them to do, that’s fine. They need to figure out their own way of fighting.”

The White House had wanted to shrink the Afghan army and police from their current total strength of 352,000 to 230,000 in 2017. Sustaining the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces costs the United States about $4.1 billion a year.

But military leaders — including Gen. John R. Allen, who stepped down over the weekend as the top coalition commander in Kabul, and his successor, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. — have sought to delay that reduction, saying Afghanistan needs the larger force until at least 2018.

“Our number is less important than their number,” said a U.S. general involved in the war. “In the middle of a drawdown for us, we can’t be drawing them down, too.”

A report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office highlighted the challenges officials face in sustaining Afghanistan’s security forces.

The government watchdog agency, which has access to previously undisclosed Pentagon data, estimated that it will cost at least $25 billion to operate the security forces between 2013 and 2017. For each year from 2015 to 2017, the GAO estimates that there is a $600 million gap between the projected cost of maintaining the Afghan force and the amounts that the Karzai government and donor nations have committed to spending.

The United States is expected to continue to foot the bulk of the bill for maintaining Afghanistan’s forces, having said that it anticipates spending $16.7 billion from 2013 to 2017. Other donors and the Afghan government have expressed a commitment to spend $6.5 billion during that period. The commitments are not binding.

The GAO said the Pentagon did not disclose its analysis of the projected cost of the Afghan security force in future years in semiannual reports on the war effort submitted to Congress.

Under the proposal to drop troop levels to below 1,000 by 2017, most of the remaining forces would focus on supporting the Afghan defense and interior ministries, training the Afghan air force and administering the distribution of billions of dollars in U.S. financial assistance for the Afghan security forces.

Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.

 
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