Military commanders are pushing President Obama to keep a maximum number of American troops through the coming Afghanistan “fighting season,” maximizing their combat role before the December 2014 date for ending offensive operations.
There currently are 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan at an unfunded cost of at least $65 billion to $70 billion. To retain those numbers from spring through autumn 2013 – the span of the fighting season – would continue present cost levels, not to mention the toll on troops becoming the last to die or suffer wounds as the American war winds down.
The Senate weighed in last week with a 62-33 vote in general favor of an accelerated troop withdrawal, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is expected to forward a similar proposal signed by 100 House members this week.
An October Pew poll showed 60 percent of Americans favoring withdrawal as soon as possible, a sharp shift from 2008 numbers.
Neoconservatives such as Fred and Kimberley Kagan are calling for 30,000 American troops to remain in country to assume counterterrorism roles, including drones, airpower, special ops, and backup troops for force protection.
The Associated Press cites “analysts” who estimate 10,000 to 15,000 will be needed for the US goals of counterterrorism, training Afghan forces and logistical support. (December 3, 2012)
Fear of “abandoning” Afghanistan runs high because of the widespread belief in official circles that the US “took its eye” off Afghanistan in 1996, when the Soviet army withdrew, and again in 2003, when the George Bush administration diverted US forces to Iraq.
But it is implausible to believe that 10,000 to 15,000 American residual troops could succeed where over 100,000 failed during a decade of war. The residual troops would be caught in sectarian crossfire as the corrupt and unpopular Karzai regime struggled for its existence. Even Republican Rep. C.W. Young (R-FL), chairman of the House subcommittee on defense spending, said, “We’re killing kids who don’t need to die.”
The sentiment runs deep, across partisan lines, that the US has “done enough” and cannot afford further entrapment in quagmires. Sentiment is even stronger for a face-saving diplomatic patch-job including power sharing and the engagement of regional powers, especially Pakistan, India, China and Russia, beyond the withdrawing NATO coalition.
A similar debate raged for two years about the Iraq War without being resolved before American troops finally departed.
For more details about the Iraq troop level negotiations, please see also by Tom Hayden, "US Special Forces Deployed in Iraq, Again."