WASHINGTON: U.S. military leaders have presented the White House with a plan that would keep 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but then start drawing the force down to nearly zero by the end of President Barack Obama’s term, according to senior officials.
The request reflects a far shorter time frame for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan than commanders had previously envisaged after the current international mission ends this year. The new approach is intended to buy the U.S. military time to advise and train the Afghan army but still allow Mr. Obama to leave office saying he ended America’s longest war, the officials said.
Military leaders told Mr. Obama that if he rejects the 10,000-troop option, then it would be best to withdraw nearly all military personnel at the end of this year because a smaller troop presence wouldn’t offer adequate protection to U.S. personnel, said officials involved in the discussions, according to a report published in Wall Street Journal.
The Obama administration has said it wants an enduring presence in Afghanistan to support the Afghan army and to prevent any regrouping of Islamist militants that could once again threaten the U.S. from the country, officials said.
The debate over troop levels in Afghanistan has taken on new urgency in light of a resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq following the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from that country in 2011.
The Pentagon’s approach, discussed in White House National Security Council meetings last week, encountered pointed questions from some NSC officials who asked what difference 10,000 U.S. troops would make on such a temporary basis, U.S. officials said.
Vice President Joe Biden has been a leading skeptic within the administration about keeping troops in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan forces after 2014, officials said.
A senior administration official declined to characterize Mr. Biden’s position on the new Pentagon proposal, saying only that he “has asked questions and listened carefully to presentations” about possible troop levels. The official said Mr. Biden would make his recommendation to Mr. Obama “at the appropriate time.”
Mr. Biden has advocated deploying special operations forces to Afghanistan for counterterrorism missions, officials said.
Afghan officials in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the new Pentagon proposal.
As an important boost to the request, the 10,000-troop proposal has the backing of intelligence agencies and the State Department. They have told the White House that their activities on the ground inside Afghanistan will depend on whether the Pentagon gets the troops it says it needs to secure bases where military advisers, spies and diplomats would do their work.
Senior U.S. officials called it a “binary” proposal, meaning the Pentagon wants one troop level or the other, not a midpoint that they said will be too small to protect deployments and support the goals of the mission.
Defense and intelligence officials who disagree with Mr. Biden’s approach said any future special operations force in Afghanistan would be of limited utility without a robust intelligence network to track militants and guide “kill teams” to their targets.
“To have an intelligence network, you have to have a footprint, and to have a footprint, you have to have force protection,” said one senior U.S. official involved in the discussions.
Currently, there are about 37,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and another 19,000 international forces. The U.S. is scheduled to draw down to 32,000 forces by the end of February.
The latest military proposal presents the Obama administration with a stark choice. White House NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Mr. Obama hasn’t made decisions about final troop numbers and declined to discuss the details of ongoing deliberations.
Top national security advisers to the president say they have been frustrated by Mr. Karzai’s unwillingness to sign the bilateral security agreement. In recent months, the Afghan leader has added several new conditions to the accord, which U.S. officials have said they thought was completed.
“If we cannot conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement promptly, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” Ms. Hayden said. “That is not a future we are seeking, and we do not believe that it is in Afghanistan’s interests.”