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.