WASHINGTION–The Pentagon has sketched out plans for a scaled-back presence in Afghanistan, after the Obama administration pressed for options that would leave fewer troops in the country after 2014 than defense officials have proposed.
New Pentagon options would leave roughly 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 U.S. troops, laying the groundwork for a more bare-bones international coalition in the country. Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, had earlier suggested 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops would be needed.
The new deployment options come as Afghan President Hamid Karzai prepares to visit Washington next week to discuss the U.S. security presence after 2014, when most foreign forces in the country are slated to have departed.
A smaller U.S. commitment would result in a corresponding drop in forces from other international coalition partners. The U.S. and its allies are negotiating future troop commitments on the basis of a formula that calls for U.S. troops to make up two-thirds of any follow-on force.
With a smaller U.S. troop presence, the State Department would also be forced to cut plans for large-scale diplomatic outposts across Afghanistan, and it would heighten the U.S.’s reliance on drones to monitor and target militants after most manned aircraft and their pilots pull out.
In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.
Last week Gen. Allen laid out plans that envisioned 15,000 international troops in Afghanistan after 2014, about two-thirds of them from the U.S. A final decision on troop levels has yet to be made by President Barack Obama, officials stressed.
The president will discuss that subject and other issues when he meets with Mr. Karzai. Afghan officials said they are taking a wait-and-see approach. Some NATO officials said the lower numbers could be a tactic to put pressure on Mr. Karzai to quickly cut a deal for a security presence.
But U.S. officials say the lower numbers reflect the political reality in the U.S., amid wariness of costly long-term commitments overseas at a time of a budget crisis at home. U.S. officials played down prospects for a final deal during Mr. Karzai’s visit, citing the complications of negotiating a long-term agreement and the difficulty of reaching an agreement with other potential contributors to a new international mission.
To partially offset the cuts and set a positive tone for the talks, the Pentagon told Congress it would provide the Afghans with about $700 million in equipment, including up to 30 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters and small unarmed tactical drones, with additional installments to come. Mr. Obama still could reject all three of the Pentagon’s options and decide against keeping any troops in the country after 2014, the officials said. It is unclear when an announcement will be made.
Spokesmen for the White House and Gen. Allen declined to comment on any of the recommendations. In its recommendation to the White House, the military said keeping 3,000 or fewer troops in Afghanistan after 2014 would pose serious risks. Such a small force could do little to protect the Afghan government or prevent the possible return of al Qaeda-linked militants, officials and experts said.
The Pentagon prefers the roughly 9,000 troop option, officials said, which would allow the U.S. to position a counterterrorism force on at least two bases in Afghanistan—most likely Bagram north of Kabul and Kandahar in the south, as well as to conduct limited training missions with Afghan forces.
But many at the White House prefer a troop level of roughly 6,000, officials said. Some NATO officials and experts say a U.S. force of that size would be too small to effectively train Afghan forces to fight the Taliban and wouldn’t be large enough to mount a countrywide special-operations campaign against militants or bail out Afghan units if they get into trouble.
“I think you may assume way too much risk if you go below that 6,000 figure,” said Mark Jacobson, who served as NATO’s deputy senior civilian representative until September 2011.
Likewise, American and NATO officials predicted a U.S. commitment of 6,000 troops or less would result in a large drop in troop commitments from NATO and non-NATO partners. “The message will be clear-cut,” a senior NATO official said of any U.S. decision to slash its projected force below 9,000 troops. “Serious nations can’t afford to leave Afghanistan like this.”
Within the administration and the Pentagon, defenders of the 6,000 and 9,000 troop options said it makes sense to go with a smaller number because the mission of any follow-on force would be narrowly defined: keeping al Qaeda from making a comeback and providing limited, high-end training to elite Afghan units.
A senior Obama administration official said the goal in Afghanistan is to deny al Qaeda a haven and to ensure Afghan forces can prevent the government from falling to the Taliban. “Those are the determinations that will drive a resource decision,” the official said.
These officials say Afghan security forces have made important gains in recent years, bolstering U.S. confidence. Afghan forces “have made more progress than virtually anyone expected,” a senior U.S. official said. “That’s why we may not need as many troops as we might have thought we needed at one point.”
Jeff Dressler, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, strongly disagreed with what he and other experts see as overly optimistic assessments of Afghan capabilities. “If you were to pull that assistance away, their capabilities shrink drastically,” he said.
The new options represent a significant change in White House thinking, said NATO officials and other experts. The Pentagon hasn’t proposed an option for keeping zero troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and doesn’t expect Mr. Obama to choose that path. But zero is a real option for the president, some officials said, pointing to the course he took in Iraq in 2011 after negotiations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke down over U.S. demands for immunity for any U.S. troops that would remain in that country.
Mr. Karzai has signaled that he would be willing to provide immunity to U.S. troops in Afghanistan if Mr. Obama provides him with guarantees that Washington will build up the Afghan military and take other steps to respect Afghan sovereignty, defense officials said.
Afghanistan released 80 prisoners formerly held by the U.S., media reported, part of a 400-detainee release that an Afghan defense official described as a peace overture—though such moves could aggravate U.S. fears that Kabul is giving freedom to dangerous militants.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment on the troop-level recommendations. “The options are being discussed in confidential discussions,” Mr. Little said. “This is obviously the president’s decisionand his to make.”
Once a decision is made on post-2014 troop levels, the Pentagon will recommend how quickly to draw down the 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. Gen. Allen favors a gradual withdrawal of troops tied to security benchmarks and other events, including the Afghan presidential election in 2014.
Defense officials said they expected the White House to ask commanders to cut the force to about 30,000 troops by the end of 2013—a level not seen since Mr. Obama came to office in 2009. Mr. Obama more than doubled troop levels before deciding to wind down the war.
The State Department still plans to maintain an embassy in Kabul and four consulates—in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazer-e-Sharif. But staffing levels may be dramatically reduced as a result of the scaled-back troop presence. —Dion Nissenbaum and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
May 21, 2018 0
The 2018 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference is scheduled for April 8 to 11 in Boao, Hainan Province. The forum will be themed "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity."
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