Members of President Obama’s administration are debating over the size and scope of the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, and just how big of a residual force to leave in the country. (Hoshang Hashimi/AP)

Groups within the Obama administration are pushing to keep no more than a few thousand troops in Afghanistan after 2014, U.S. officials said, raising the prospect that the United States will be unable to keep its promise to fully train and equip Afghan security forces.

As the debate over the size and scope of the post-2014 coalition mission nears its end, some in the administration are pressing for a force that could be as small as 2,500, arguing that a light touch would be the most constructive way to cap the costly, unpopular war.

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.

Among the issues are whether the U.S. troops can conduct counterterrorism operations on their own and whether they would be immune from Afghan law.

The troop levels under serious consideration range from 2,500 to 6,000, the senior defense official said.

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.