After months of debate in the U.S. defense community and anxious waiting from Afghan watchers, General John R. Allen—the senior American commander in the Afghan war—has finally given President Barack Obama his professional opinion on how many troops should stay in Afghanistan after the NATO mission concludes at the end of 2014. When that milestone is reached, the United States and its NATO allies will be formally handing over responsibility for Afghan security to the country’s national army and police. But just as the Obama administration tried to do in Iraq, the White House would prefer to keep a residual U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan even after the formal mission is complete.
According to a story in the New York Times this week, which cites unnamed U.S. officials, Gen. Allen has come away from his security review with three broad options for Obama’s national security team to consider. The first would leave approximately 6,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014, whose mission would be primarily geared towards a narrow, yet intense, counterterrorism operation that would concentrate on high-value Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The second option increases the troop level to 10,000, providing the U.S. military with greater leverage on the ground and an ability to continue partnering and training Afghan security forces. The third and by far most extensive recommendation would see 20,000 Americans staying in country, leaving open the possibility that conventional U.S. troop units would be able to patrol certain neighborhoods when needed.
President Obama is expected to consider all three options next week when he meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House. Both the Americans and Afghans are still in the middle of complicated negotiations over granting the post-2014 U.S. troops immunity from prosecution by Afghan authorities. Karzai has been tough throughout the entire process on this issue. If the past is any guide to the future, the Afghan President will likely advocate leaving the smallest post-2014 U.S. troop presence in the country in order to burnish Afghanistan’s newfound sovereignty as an independent nation-state, and perhaps elevate his legacy as a statesman before stepping down permanently in 2014.
In the end, however, Karzai may not need to worry about what Obama is thinking. The war in Afghanistan has become a sore point for the Obama administration, punctuated by the enormous rise in insider attacks on coalition forces and the persistent tenacity and lethality of the Taliban insurgency. Whenever the Obama White House publicly speaks about the war these days, the discussion is centered on bringing the post-9/11 wars to a close rather than emphasizing the successes that have been made after years of fighting Nothing better illustrated this than the Vice Presidential debate in October, when Vice President Joe Biden passionately hammered home to Paul Ryan and the American people that the U.S. would be out by 2014 regardless of conditions on the ground.
Tactically speaking, the 6,000-troop option may not be enough for U.S. commanders, most of whom would prefer to have as many resources and the greatest latitude as possible to execute their mission. Yet for Presidents Obama and Karzai—two leaders who are eager to normalize a U.S.-Afghan relationship that has largely been dictated by Washington for the past eleven years—a few thousand American soldiers to track down and kill wanted terrorists may very well be the best package that they can sell to their war-weary citizens.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Washington, D.C. analyst and a past contributor to The Diplomat.