A senior U.S. military official involved in Afghanistan policy said officials at the Pentagon have all but given up hope for a post-2014 force of at least 10,000, which some commanders had deemed the bare minimum. These officials have said that a force of that size is needed to accomplish the training objective while maintaining counterterrorism capabilities.
The debate is fundamentally about U.S. goals and expectations. Military leaders who have made a case for keeping a large presence after 2014 appear to be losing out to those who want the future of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan to mirror the lower-profile roles that Washington has played in places such as Yemen and Colombia.
Afghanistan presents unique challenges, given its forbidding topography, resilient insurgency and weak government. So a force of a few thousand is likely to have a limited effect.
“You’ll end up doing nothing outside of Kabul,” said another senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan, referring to the 2,500 figure.
With 6,000 troops, the United States would retain the capability to run Bagram air base, a key hub outside the capital. But that could leave the United States without a military presence in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland and the focus of Obama’s 2010 troop surge.
“It would mean walking away from commitments we made in 2009 and 2010,” said retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who argued in a policy paper published by the Institute for the Study of War that an international force of about 30,000 troops is needed to keep the Afghan security forces afloat. He said the Afghans have become good at combat but remain stymied by weak logistics, training and equipment systems.
Kalev Sepp, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who has studied U.S. military assistance missions, said the American interventions in El Salvador in the 1980s and Colombia in the 1990s demonstrated that thinly staffed advisory missions can have a huge effect. A small support team places the onus on the local force, he said.
“It makes them fight for their own country,” Sepp said. Army leaders, he said, are too often inclined to draw up plans for large-scale missions. “It is not in their operational doctrine to send very small numbers of people.”
Outcomes and concerns
Afghan leaders would like for a post-2014 U.S. presence to be focused on training the local army and police. But Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a small residual force would probably have a strong emphasis on counterterrorism.
“Among the problems with that is that it is not a popular mission in Afghanistan,” Biddle said, referring to Afghans’ strong aversion to tactics such as night raids and airstrikes. “While you’re flying at 10,000 feet, the country burns underneath you,” he added, describing the way a counterterrorism-focused mission could be viewed.
On the other hand, planning for a substantial force after 2014 has the potential to boost the Taliban’s narrative that Afghanistan is an occupied country led by men subservient to Washington. The militant group issued a statement Saturday calling any bilateral agreement for a post-2014 force a “personal deal” between Karzai and the Americans that would be devoid of “legal credibility.”
Washington’s NATO allies are watching the debate closely. Britain, the second-largest troop contributor to the mission, announced last month that it intended to draw down from roughly 9,500 to 5,200 service members this year. Despite strong lobbying behind the scenes by U.S. officials, few of Washington’s allies have committed to keeping a significant number of troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The low numbers the administration is mulling are likely to further curb the meager appetite in NATO capitals for a continued military presence in Afghanistan.
“Everyone is looking at the U.S. to see what the Obama administration will come up with and what this bilateral agreement will entail,” said a senior European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the concerns the debate is generating on the continent.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.