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Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Three options weighed by the White House

How many US troops are coming home from Afghanistan this year? On the eve of Obama's speech on his promised July start to the drawdown of American forces, here are three scenarios.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / June 21, 2011

In a Feb. 14, 2010 file photo, a US soldier returns fire as others run for cover during a firefight with insurgents in the Badula Qulp area, west of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is expected to withdraw roughly 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan this year, a senior US defense official said Tuesday, June 21.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP/File

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Washington

President Obama’s Wednesday speech on his promised July drawdown of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan is drafted. But on circulating copies, there are still blank spaces where the final troop figures will go.

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Whether that’s because the White House is still in the midst of internal debate – or whether it’s a fear of leaks – remains the subject of speculation, but guessing precisely what those figures will be was insider Washington’s favorite parlor game Tuesday.

Here are some possible scenarios – small, medium, and large troop withdrawals – being weighed by the White House for the near and long-term, along with their risks and rewards.

Small

This is certainly the Pentagon’s preference. It would involve continuing to keep fairly robust levels of American forces in Afghanistan through 2014, likely as many as 60,000 soldiers, according to a plan that Seth Jones, an analyst for the RAND Corporation and until earlier this year an adviser to special operations forces in Afghanistan, submitted in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

In the near term, it would involve keeping the bulk of the 30,000 US surge forces in the country, too – as 2011 draws to a close, only 5,000 to 10,000 surge troops would withdraw, according to plans favored by the Pentagon.

A reduction of up to 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 – most of them support and logistics specialists from the largest US bases – would not create a great risk for the US military’s mission in Afghanistan, says Jones, who adds that troop levels could perhaps be reduced by 10,000 to 20,000 more by the end of 2012.

“What the military wants is any withdrawal this year to take place after the fighting season is completed, which generally runs through the summer, and the withdrawal to be noncombat troops, so they have as many combat troops as possible to wage the fighting season this year and next year,” says Richard Fontaine, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Some defense analysts say, however, that a small withdrawal is not consistent with achieving the goal of a sustainable homegrown counterinsurgency effort. The problem, says Jones, is that keeping close to current US troop levels in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future would “not adequately prepare Afghan forces to fight the insurgency and secure their country.”

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