Future Afghan Troop Presence Divides Military, White House

United States Marines use metal detectors to sweep a hill during a route reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan, January 1, 2012

United States Marines use metal detectors to sweep a hill during a route reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan, January 1, 2012 (USMC/Corporal Meredith Brown)

The Obama Administration is anxiously working to cement a status of forces agreement with the Afghan government before all foreign troops are expected to withdraw from the country in 2014. But before President Barack Obama can do so, he needs to conclude negotiations with his own Defense Department over how many American soldiers will be stationed in Afghanistan after NATO’s mandate officially expires.

Arriving at a decision is becoming more difficult as the months drag on, with officials in the White House and the generals running the war once again at loggerheads over force requirements.

Last month, an administration official hinted that the White House was considering leaving 2,500 troops to back up the Afghan National Security Forces in January 2015. One presidential aid even floated the idea of withdrawing every single soldier from the country, dubbed the “zero option” by officials involved in the discussions.

General John R. Allen, the American and NATO general who handed over command to another Marine general on Sunday, was said to view those figures as too low for the job at hand.

The current debate over war strategy is eerily familiar to the months long discussions between the Pentagon and the White House before the troop surge in 2009, when President Obama eventually opted to send thirty thousand additional soldiers to Afghanistan.

The latest figures being floated around in Washington seem to be a compromise between a president who desperately wants to end the war and the generals who want to ensure that the successes that have been made in the last three years are maintained to the fullest extent possible.

The Washington Post has learned that the Defense Department is lobbying the administration for eight thousand troops post 2014 with the number declining steadily over the next three years.

The exact numbers are yet to be determined and it remains to be seen how Afghan president Hamid Karzai will react to the plan. He has previously stated that he expects all international troops to be out of his country in less than two years’ time but few observers believe that national army forces are prepared to maintain security in Afghanistan on their own.

The latest iteration of the war strategy will be moot unless Afghan and American negotiators can come to an agreement on some very important issues. Foremost among them whether American soldiers will be provided legal immunity from Afghan law. Immunity for any residual troop presence is currently holding up talks for a short term security agreement, a pact that all sides acknowledge is necessary to hold territory that was taken from the Taliban since the surge.

What the troop levels reveal, despite the difficulties of planning in the middle of the war, is a broad disagreement between civilian and military officials on the future of the conflict. While both sides keep their rhetoric down in public, President Obama and his military commanders have been in near constant friction over how fast to wind down a war that is currently in its twelfth year and the longest in American history. The debate being hashed out on both sides of the Potomac River is another reminder that Afghanistan has often divided the decision makers who are responsible for managing the war and bringing it to a successful end.

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