How many US troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014?
Since the end of the surge of US forces in Afghanistan in 2011, the US has been cutting its troop levels in the country. So far, the number of US troops has been reduced from a high of 100,000 in 2011 to 66,000 today. Under an agreement between NATO and the Afghan government, the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude by the end of 2014, when the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will have assumed full responsibility for the country's security. Discussions are now being conducted on how many US troops should remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
General John Allen's recommendations
According to the New York Times, General John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has put forward his recommendations. The general's recommendations include three options which depend on the capabilities that are to be retained: 6,000 troops; 10,000 troops; and 20,000 troops.
Option#1: "With 6,000 troops, defense officials said, the American mission would largely be a counterterrorism fight of Special Operations commandos who would hunt down insurgents. There would be limited logistical support and training for Afghan security forces." US forces would be concentrated in one base only, Bagram. This is the 'ANSF is on its own' option.
Option#2: "With 10,000 troops, the United States would expand training of Afghan security forces. " On top of the troops from option #1, this would provide an additional 4,000 US troops to support training and mentoring in the ANSF. These troops would essentially continue the deployment of training teams currently in place. Some troops would be assigned to ANSF training bases and others would be partnered with ANSF units in the field. In addition to training and mentoring, this option would confer some ability for ANSF units to call in NATO airstrikes. This number of troops is similar to US troop levels in 2003-2004.
Option#3: "With 20,000 troops, the Obama administration would add some conventional Army forces to patrol in limited areas." On top of the troops from option #2, this option adds 10,000 troops (about one or two brigades) of conventional army forces. It is unlikely that they would be used for patrolling, since the number of troops would be insufficient for that purpose. A more useful function would be a Quick Reaction Force to bail out ANSF units if they got into trouble during specific operations. There would be either one or two major US bases: Regional Command-East in Bagram, and a possible second base at Regional Command-South at Kandahar. This number of troops is similar to US troop levels in 2005-2007.
President Obama's preference
It is now President Obama's responsibility to make the final decision. While the decision has not been made, his preference has been reported in a number of articles. All reports suggest he prefers a smaller number, fewer than 10,000 troops.
Fox News reports that the president's preferred option calls for fewer than 10,000 troops:
The White House is not considering any option that would leave more than 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The Los Angeles Times says the preference is for 6,000-9,000 troops:
The Obama administration plans on keeping 6,000 to 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, fewer than previously reported, and will confine most of them to fortified garrisons near the capital, leaving Afghan troops largely without American advisors in the field to fight a still-powerful insurgency.
The Washington Post reports that a level as low as 2,500 troops is being considered:
Some in the administration are pressing for a force that could be as small as 2,500, arguing that a light touch would be the most constructive way to cap the costly, unpopular war.
Asked about consideration of a so-called zero-option once the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014, [U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser] Rhodes said: "That would be an option that we would consider."
A final decision is not expected for several months.
According to Reuters, the White House is asking for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country. This implies that only Special Operations Forces (SOF) focusing on countererrorism operations will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
- 3,000 troops would be the minimum required for the SOF to be able to maintain a credible counterterrorism capability.
- 9,000 troops would constitute a substantial SOF with a robust countererrorism capability. This would be similar to the US's current SOF capacity in Afghanistan.