WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has proposed to President Obama that 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan when the international combat mission there ends after this year, or none at all, senior government officials said Tuesday.
That figure, debated in recent days within the White House, is the midpoint of a range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops – most of them Americans – that has been contemplated for months as the United States and its NATO allies plan for the long mission’s end. Anything less than that, the officials said, would be too few to be able to protect the reduced number of diplomats, military and intelligence officials who remain in Afghanistan.
“The proposal is 10,000 or basically nothing, a pullout,” said one official, who had been briefed on the plan but spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration deliberations.
Both the intelligence agencies and the State Department, which would have personnel remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, back the Defense Department’s proposal, the officials said. But it has met resistance among some officials in the White House National Security Council, including Vice President Joe Biden, who question why the choice has to be 10,000 troops or zero, and nothing in between.
About 37,500 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, about twice as many as the number of international forces there.
Administration officials declined to confirm a report in The Wall Street Journal that the military’s plan would call for quickly withdrawing the troops so that none remained by the time Obama left office in January 2017. That would be a far more rapid departure than considered previously for residual forces; a still-pending agreement with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan would allow for an U.S. presence to 2024.
U.S. presence needed
The Obama administration is eager to maintain some military presence in Afghanistan after this year, especially given the resurgence of Islamist extremists and al-Qaida sympathizers who have exploited the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the chaos of the civil war in Syria. But Karzai could foil any plans, as he has balked at signing a bilateral security agreement negotiated late last year to set out the conditions for a continued U.S. presence in his country.
The White House would not respond to reports of the Pentagon plan and instead focused on keeping pressure on Karzai to sign the security agreement – without which any talk of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan is moot.
“The president has not yet made decisions about final troop numbers,” said Caitlin M. Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
But absent a bilateral security agreement, she said, “then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan. That is not a future we are seeking, and we do not believe that it is in Afghanistan’s interests.”
“The further this slips into 2014, however, the more likely such an outcome is,” Hayden added.
Decisions have to be made soon, she said, about issues like base closings and force levels.
Despite the tension now between the United States and Karzai on the matter, the agreement negotiated included concessions from the Afghans that the Obama administration had not been able to secure from Iraq in 2011, which led to Americans’ complete withdrawal from that country.
Chief among them was assurance that U.S. soldiers would not face prosecution in Afghanistan for actions in the course of their duties there. Also, Special Operations forces would be able to conduct anti-terrorism raids in private Afghan homes. But Karzai has since insisted on other conditions, while the United States has refused to reopen negotiations.