In June 2011, President Obama announced that the US would begin withdrawing military forces from Afghanistan and transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The US goal is to be substantially out of Afghanistan by 2014, with ANSF responsible for the entire country. The implementation plan for 2012 has been publicized over the past nine months and is recapped below. The plan for 2013 is now emerging; what is known is summarized here for the first time. The plan for 2014 is still speculative.
The plan for 2012
Starting this spring, the US will draw down its troops from the current 90,000 to 68,000 by October 2012. Essentially, the surge of US forces deployed to Afghanistan in early 2009 is being withdrawn.
As the withdrawal proceeds, the ANSF is expected to assume leadership for security operations in a large portion of the country. By the end of 2012, the areas of Afghan responsibility will contain about 50% of Afghan’s population. This will become a significant test of ANSF capabilities, and will be an important indicator of the ANSF’s ability to continue to expand its areas of responsibility into 2013.
The ANSF will reach its end state goal of 352,000 troops by October 2012 and then stop growing. Significant shortfalls in quality, organizational structure, and capability will still exist, however. The US will deploy a large contingent of military trainers and advisers to Afghanistan this summer to address these issues.
The plan for 2013
The plan for 2013 is currently being developed. The final version will be presented for approval at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. While still incomplete, portions of the plan have been disclosed or can be deduced. According to The Guardian, Obama described the next phase of the transition as follows: “This includes shifting to a support role next year, in 2013, in advance of Afghans taking full responsibility for security in 2014. We’re going to complete this mission, and we’re going to do it responsibly.”
The most significant element of the plan is that US and ISAF forces will stop conducting combat operations in late 2013. The ANSF will then be responsible for executing all combat operations in Afghanistan.
Security responsibility for additional areas of Afghanistan will be transferred to the ANSF during 2013. Perhaps 75% of Afghan’s population will be living in areas under ANSF security leadership by the end of 2013. These areas will include substantial portions of the northern, western, and southern regions. Due to the stronger Taliban organization in the eastern region, however, it is likely to lag behind.
The size of the ANSF will be maintained at 352,000 troops. US and ISAF mentoring and advising teams will concentrate on improving the quality of existing troops. Organizational development will focus on standing up support functions that are currently being performed by US and ISAF units.
The number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan during 2013 is still being decided, but it appears that three options are being considered. According to a New York Times report, the three options are:
- A drawdown from 68,000 to 58,000 troops by the end of 2012, with a further drawdown to between 38,000 and 48,000 by June 2013. This would be a continuation of the current policy of gradual drawdown. Obama has stated that he prefers a gradual drawdown. Therefore, this is the most likely option.
- Maintaining 68,000 troops through the end of 2013. This is the US military commanders’ preferred option since it maintains US force levels through the summer fighting season in 2013. However, US military commanders had previously wanted to maintain 90,000 troops through the end of 2012, and that plan was rejected last year. So, maintaining 68,000 troops in 2013 is probably a less likely option.
- A large and rapid drawdown, perhaps to 20,000 troops, by the end of 2013. This would leave only Special Operations Forces, counterterrorism forces, military trainers, and some support and security staff in Afghanistan. This is Vice President Biden’s preferred option. But this option also was considered and rejected for 2012. And Obama has stated that a rapid drawdown was not his preferred option, either. Therefore, this too is an unlikely option.
The plan for 2014
The plan for 2014 is much less clear. It will be highly dependent on the post-2014 plan, which is still in the early stages of negotiations with the Karzai administration. However, assuming a deal is reached, a 2014 plan is likely to include the following elements.
The US force level will drop to between 10,000 and 20,000 troops. They will consist of Special Forces, counterterrorism forces, and military training personnel. They will be deployed to a small number of bases around the country. US/ISAF troops will continue their training of ANSF soldiers. Counterterrorism forces will concentrate mostly on high-value targets.
The ANSF will be responsible for security operations for all of Afghanistan, including army and police functions. The ANSF will be maintained at 352,000 troops. It is possible, however, that plans will be put in place to begin cutting the number to 230,000 troops starting after 2014.