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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.”

American troop presence in the country, too, appears to have diminishing returns, Jones points out: Though it’s still above 50 percent, Afghan support for the US military has declined every year since 2005.

Medium

This approach would limit US goals in Afghanistan, focusing on assisting Afghan national security forces and targeting terrorist leaders – a plan Jones calls an “Afghan-led counterinsurgency.” Such a plan “would largely terminate US combat operations in 2014, except for targeting terrorist leaders,” he says.

This might mean pulling out 20,000 troops by the end of 2011, 40,000 more by the end of 2012, and reducing forces to roughly 30,000 by 2014, says Jones. The key would be bolstering Afghan national security forces as well as the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a goal enthusiastically supported by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan. So far, the ALP have undercut Taliban control in key areas of the South, Jones says, and helped to connect local villages to the Afghan government.

But local security forces “do not offset the risks incurred by premature withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan,” says Frederick Kagan, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, who has advised the US military and was an architect of the surge in Iraq.

What’s more, Dr. Kagan and others add that a premature withdrawal of combat forces would undermine what until now has been a promising local security effort.

“Local security forces operate in remote areas that have either been cleared or that were not enemy safe havens to begin with,” says Dr. Kagan, who supports a small troop drawdown. “They cannot by themselves clear enemy-held areas, nor can they withstand concerted enemy attacks.”

That’s because local security forces number only about 6,000, he says. “Remember that there were over 100,000 Sons of Iraq. Increasing their numbers depends on having requisite numbers of partners and mentors.” Removing conventional forces, he adds, “will encourage more Afghans to sit on the fence, and can undermine the entire local security effort.”

Large

This is the “counterterrorism” option favored by Vice President Joseph Biden and others, and would involve withdrawing all, or most, military forces from Afghanistan and relying on US Special Operations Forces and CIA units to capture or kill members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

In this case, Jones explains in this option submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The US footprint in Afghanistan might more closely resemble the current US footprint in Yemen: Lean and lethal.”

This would involve drawing down half of the 100,000 US troops currently in Afghanistan by the end of 2011, and nearly 30,000 more by the end of 2012, leaving some 20,000 US troops in the country by 2013.

There are risks, though, that involve losing the gains that US troops have fought hard to achieve, says Mr. Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security.

“The military has fought very, very hard to make progress in the south and the east of Afghanistan – and with fewer troops you have less ground you can cover, less places you can go, less people you can fight,” he says. “But you have to balance that against all the other considerations.” These involve whether the expense in troops lives and billions of dollars, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis, is worth the price America is paying.

Such a strategy would significantly reduce the financial burden on the United States – a concern for lawmakers with a close eye on the 2012 elections.

“My personal belief is that the cost [of the war in Afghanistan] is obviously extremely high,” Fontaine says. “But if we are correct that the strategic stakes in Afghanistan are as great as we’ve been describing, then that justifies – at least in the short to medium term – some pretty substantial investments in what we’re trying to do.”

But how much impact will delaying the withdrawal for a little while really have on the ground in Afghanistan? That is the question Mr. Obama should be asking himself, says retired Col. Douglas Ollivant, senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, and former senior counterinsurgency adviser to the US military’s Regional Command East in Afghanistan.

“ ‘What’s the right number of troops in Afghanistan?’ is the wrong question. The core question – what you want to ask – is: ‘Do we think what we’re doing is working?’ ” Beyond that, he adds, “Is the policy sustainable?”

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