President Obama is poised to keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until at least 2016. Some top intelligence and military officers now fighting that war say the number of troops under consideration by the White House should be just enough to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing a safe haven. Others aren’t so sure that 9,800 troops can keep the terror group and its allies at bay.
The stakes in the troop decision couldn’t be higher. Not only will it help shape the relationship between Obama and his national security state during the president’s final years in office, but in a very real way, the decision could determine the final outcome of America’s longest war. There are top military and intelligence officials who are deeply concerned about what the president might do next.
“The bottom line is that 10,000 troops is not enough to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “As a result, they will come back. We have decided as a political leadership that we can live with this.”
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, announced his preference for 10,000 U.S. troops during congressional testimony in March. (An additional 2,000 troops would be supplied by other NATO countries.) But top military and intelligence officials say they worry Obama may be going even lower than that.
One senior U.S. military official told The Daily Beast that every time his office offered assessments to the National Security Council on how to deploy the 10,000 troops requested by Dunford for post-2014 operations in Afghanistan, they were asked to whittle down the overall number. (The White House declined to comment for this story.)
Of course, there’s not a military officer alive who wouldn’t mind more troops or more gear to accomplish his mission. And, of course, more troops doesn’t guarantee better outcomes—look at the Afghan surge of 2009 and 2010, which failed to bring down the violence there.
But senior military commanders in Afghanistan and two senior U.S. defense officials in Washington said they were comfortable with the 10,000 figure. They had been part of the team that helped Dunford come up with that number, and believed it to be enough to advise Afghan forces and support U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence operations for at least another two years and at six regional bases—including Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar, and Jalalabad.
These commanders were concerned that if the numbers went much lower than that, the U.S. would have to shrink its mission to perhaps just Kabul and Bagram, leaving the countryside to Afghan security forces that still struggle to get ammunition, equipment, fuel, and food, to their troops.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were worried that the White House would perceive any publicly expressed doubts or recommendations as an attempt by the military to box Obama into a specific number of troops, as it was when Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendations for Afghanistan were leaked ahead of Obama’s decision on troop numbers in his first year in office.
Leading Democrats in Congress—like Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—have said the Afghan security forces are ready to assume a lot more responsibility for security inside the country. But he wants Obama to make a decision on troop levels, and soon.
Obama is poised to announce his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan past 2014 Tuesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press. Speaking to U.S. soldiers gathered after a surprise visit to Kabul this weekend, Obama said: “After all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win and we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country.”
While 10,000 U.S. forces in mid-2014 represents what looks like the limit of what Obama may agree to leave in Afghanistan past 2014, at one point it was considered the bare minimum. Dunford’s predecessor, Gen. John Allen, recommended in 2013 that Obama leave 20,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014 and said 10,000 troops would represent a “high-risk option,” according two U.S. military officials who worked on the planning documents.
Allen’s recommendations were also made before a massive, 61,500-pound truck bomb headed for a U.S. forward operating base on the Pakistan border was intercepted this fall by Afghan security forces. The bomb was the largest one U.S. officials had seen for the entire war. First reported by ABC News, U.S. military officials tell The Daily Beast that the truck bomb forced U.S. military planners to increase their estimates of the troops needed just to protect U.S. bases in Afghanistan after 2014.
“The bottom line is that 10,000 troops is not enough to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. As a result, they will come back. We have decided as a political leadership that we can live with this.”
These pressures from within the military will play out this week when President Obama delivers a major address at West Point on national security. But the failure of the White House to provide specifics for his troop estimates has worried lawmakers.
“The uniformed military have been frustrated for a long time now that they haven’t decided in the White House what the number, mission, and duration of a residual force would be,” Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast in an interview Monday. “It’s been very frustrating to a lot of us who have been involved with Afghanistan for a long time that Obama has for so long refused to give an estimate of the size and mission of the force that would be left behind and how long they would remain there. There’s no reason for him not to have come up with that number and mission a long time ago.”
Now, the number being bandied about by the Obama administration as a maximum number of post-2014 troops in Afghanistan is 10,000, but that’s including U.S. and NATO forces, according to McCain, an estimate much smaller than the one even Dunford requested.
The administration has said it must wait until after the next Afghan president is chosen following a runoff election next month. President Karzai, who reportedly refused to meet with Obama during the president’s weekend trip to Kabul, has said he won’t sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States before leaving office. The two candidates running in next month’s election, however, both told The Daily Beast they would sign such an agreement immediately after taking power.
Many in Congress and at the top ranks of the military are skeptical that the White House wants to leave any number of troops in Afghanistan at all, raising the specter of the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Iraq to keep troops there after 2011. The security situation in Iraq has steadily deteriorated ever since and al Qaeda’s former franchise has taken control of multiple cities and expanded into Syria.
“The president wants to be able to say in January 2017 that he got us out of both wars. The tragedy of that is the chaos that he is leaving behind,” McCain said. “I’d like to hear how he will restore the reliability of the United States in the world, which has dramatically eroded. I have no illusions that that will happen.”
— with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier