Pentagon plan for Afghanistan: More than Obama wants, but enough?

The Pentagon reportedly has presented Obama with a plan for 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Below that figure, officials say, imperils the mission. But some analysts say more are needed.

Scott Olson/Reuters/File
A US Marine watches as an Osprey arrives at Forward Operating Base Shukvani, Afghanistan, in 2012.

The Pentagon has presented the White House with what is being described as an all-or-nothing plan to leave 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan after the deadline at the end of 2014 for the withdrawal of all US combat forces, according to media reports.

The number is a higher figure than has long been thought to be remotely palatable to the White House, but still significantly lower than what some analysts say is necessary to guarantee security in the country. Previous reports had put the figures at between 4,000 and 8,000 troops, with NATO allies to contribute another 3,000.

The troops would then be withdrawn by 2016, according to the reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

The message from top US military officials is reportedly that if President Obama doesn’t approve their 10,000-troop request, then he shouldn’t bother sending any troops at all.

Supporters of this plan argue that any troop level short of that figure would not provide enough force security, logistics specialists, or transportation troops – what the military calls “enablers” – for the remaining troops tasked with training Afghan national security forces to do their job.

There are a number of top US officials, however, who are said to be taking issue with the Pentagon plan put forward by Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

Vice President Joseph Biden is said to be pushing for a smaller counter-terrorism force, similar to a plan that he advocated for earlier in Mr. Obama’s presidency.

At the time, Obama rejected the plan, choosing instead a surge of US troops into Afghanistan. There are currently some 37,500 US troops in the country, along with 19,000 troops from other countries. Another 5,000 US troops are slated to leave the country by the end of February.

But since then the US has repeatedly butted heads with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that includes the provisions for immunity from prosecution for US troops that must be in place before the US agrees to keep any forces in the country post-2014.

In response – and in the hopes perhaps of frightening Mr. Karzai – the White House has floated the idea of a “zero option,” leaving no US troops.

Even in the face of such a possibility, some analysts argue that the 10,000-troop figure is too few troops to maintain the stability of the country, even after nearly a dozen years of war.

“I think that 10,000 troops is a really low-end estimate of what is required in order to maintain US security interests in Afghanistan,” says Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

“Though it seems like a lot to an American civilian, it is actually not sufficient to accomplish a counterterrorism mission of the type that would actually keep the border reasonably secure – therefore, we are risking the re-growth of Al Qaeda.”

Instead, Dr. Kagan says she would prefer to see a force level of closer to 25,000 troops, and adds that US military commanders constrained themselves in asking for less.

That said, fewer than 10,000 troops would “put at risk the very mission that they have assigned to their forces.”

Proponents of fewer US troops in the country – as well as proponents of a zero option – argue that it is difficult to see what could be accomplished in another two years that a dozen years of war have not been able to achieve.

To this, advocates say that there is the matter of the presidential elections scheduled for April. More troops will give the new president a smoother transition, as well as further train Afghan security forces “to see to it that they can continue to protect Afghanistan over the long term,” Kagan says.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters Friday that should the Pentagon reduce its force levels to 8,000 or 10,000 troops, the US military’s way forward will then consist of a “geographically limited counterinsurgency combined with a very aggressive counter-terrorism effort.”

To do a counter-terrorism strategy with fewer troops, as Mr. Biden reportedly is suggesting, would not allow enough of a support infrastructure, Gates argues, since America still has not cultivated enough of a human intelligence network of local contacts after a dozen years of war to allow, say, Special Operations Forces to go after enemy leaders without more US troops to support them.

There are “a large number of people in the White House who just want to pull the plug on Afghanistan altogether and just get the hell out and leave no residual force,” Mr. Gates said. “And I just think that would be a terrible mistake.”

A residual force along the lines of 8,000 to 10,000 troops would be “large enough to actually do something,” Gates said. “Whether it’s advise and train the Afghans with a limited counter-terrorism capability providing some logistics and intelligence support and so on, the important thing is the message.”

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