Those troop levels are significantly lower than what some senior military officials have advocated, arguing that a sudden disengagement could lead to the collapse of a frail state and the onset of a new civil war. The low number also is a far cry from figures in the 10,000-to-30,000 range discussed among NATO allies and some U.S. officials as recently as a year ago.
The scope and size of a post-2014 force are at the top of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s agenda during his visit to Washington this week, which includes a meeting with President Obama on Friday.
White House officials said Tuesday that they have not ruled out leaving no troops at all when the U.N. security mandate sanctioning the international coalition expires, saying they might find non-military means to meet U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.
The United States has committed to continue supporting Afghanistan’s security forces and intends to maintain counterterrorism capabilities that would prevent al-Qaeda from regaining a foothold in the country where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were planned.
“There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve U.S. troops, some of which might not,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday afternoon.
Some senior military officials and analysts have pressed for a more robust force, arguing that a hasty disengagement would be reckless and could cause Afghanistan’s security forces to crumble. The United States has invested $50 billion in training and equipping the Afghan army and police.
Others say that a small, well-managed contingent could accomplish the Obama administration’s key objectives while markedly lowering the United States’ profile in a region where anti-American sentiment runs high.
“The real question is what kind of mission we’re looking at,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. “The challenge will be the temptation to keep doing many of the things we’ve been doing.”
A debate about U.S. goals
Determining the size of a possible post-2014 force is the first step to charting out the timeline for withdrawing the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. Keeping troops there after 2014 would require a bilateral agreement stipulating the authority of the contingent and the legal protections its members would enjoy — thorny questions that Obama and Karzai are expected to tackle this week.