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In Afghanistan, Hagel faces early test: how many troops to leave behind

With his arduous confirmation finally over, Secretary Hagel arrived in Afghanistan to confront considerable challenges, including the pace of withdrawal and the size of the residual US force.

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He noted that the NATO contribution would likely amount to roughly half of whatever the United States contributes.

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Gen. John Allen, the head of US forces in Afghanistan, recently submitted his own proposal for US troop levels in the country to the White House for review and for President Obama’s ultimate decision.

A large portion of US service members are tasked with training Afghan soldiers and police. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said recently he would like to see the ranks of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remain at a relatively high level – 352,000 – through 2018.

There was some talk among US military commanders – discussions in which Mr. Hagel will take part – about whether a larger Afghan security force is feasible for the country to maintain. Keeping such forces on hand is expensive, and, many worry, ultimately unsustainable.

For his part, Mr. Rasmussen argued this week that keeping the Afghan force larger for a longer period will prove more cost-effective over time – and more palatable to Afghans than foreign troops in their country.

That said, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told parliament this week that his nation’s security forces must behave more ethically, after recent reports of abuse and torture of prisoners in their care.

In the meantime, the drawdown of US forces out of Afghanistan continues apace. There was initially some concern that the so-called budget “sequester,” which is forcing cuts in the Pentagon budget, could potentially impact the return of US troops and equipment from the country, Gen. William Fraser III, head of US Transportation Command, noted this week.

Currently, however, “There has been direction by the department to ensure that the resources are there which should cover the [drawdown] we’re talking about,” a particularly challenging mission, he added, given the fact that Afghanistan is landlocked.

At the same time, some 34,000 US troops are scheduled to return home from Afghanistan by early 2014.

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