Kim and Fred Kagan have a typically trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post today on the minimal force requirements necessary for post-2014 Afghanistan. Bottom line up front: They argue a force of at least 30,000 personnel will be needed for a bare-bones counterterrorism and advisory mission.
They begin by assuming that the U.S. will need three major bases outside Kabul–in Jalalabad, Khost, and Kandahar. Each base will require a battalion of ground troops, primarily for protection, and a battalion of combat-aviation to enable drone strikes and operations by Special Mission Units. That adds up to two brigades, or 10,000 troops. Add in 5,000 or so logisticians to keep those bases supplied and you’re up to 15,000. To prevent the areas around those bases from going to hell, it will also be necessary to send some advisors to the local Afghan army and police headquarters. That adds another 6,000 or so personnel. If you add in “the security forces for a base near Kabul, a theater headquarters, route-clearance packages, theater logisticians and other ancillary units,” you are pushing “the requirement above 30,000.”
That is not a grandiose objective; it is a bare minimum. As the Kagans write: “At that level U.S. forces in Afghanistan could do nothing beyond the minimum necessary to allow us to continue counterterrorism operations in South Asia: no nation-building, no effort to affect the Afghan political process or help the Afghans secure presidential elections in 2014, no development assistance; only defensive operations against the Taliban and other insurgent groups from three bases.”
Their math adds up. It is indeed similar to my own calculation that 25,000 to 35,000 troops would be needed–a figure echoed by other serious security analysts. So it is with some alarm that I read reports that the administration may have settled on keeping only 10,000 troops. Such a force would have trouble doing much beyond keeping itself supplied and secure; it would be hard-put to have much of an impact against the major terrorist networks that call Afghanistan and Pakistan home. If such a decision has indeed been made, it is hard to see how it can be justified on the merits: the Kagans’ calculations are hard to dispute. But sound as the Kagans’ strategic thinking may be, it does not accord with what passes for political wisdom in the White House, where war-weary politicos are eager to draw as many troops out as quickly as possible, without fully thinking through the consequences of their actions.
One consequence they should consider is that, given how little a force of 10,000 could contribute to the long-term security of the government of Afghanistan, it is by no means a sure thing that Hamid Karzai will make the necessary concessions, in particular granting U.S. troops complete immunity from Afghan prosecution, that are necessary to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement. We could in fact be heading for an Iraq Redux disaster, wherein the Obama administration squanders the goodwill of our local ally by not making a real commitment to its future, thereby torpedoing diplomatic negotiations on a long-term U.S. presence. If that were to happen in Afghanistan, it would be an even bigger disaster than in Iraq because Afghanistan remains our best–indeed virtually our only base–to strike into the heart of terror in Pakistan, as SEAL Team Six did with its raid on Osama bin Laden.