If this New York Times leak is accurate, Gen. John Allen has presented his three options for force levels in Afghanistan post-2014. Low risk option: 20,000. Medium risk: 10,000. High-risk: 6,000.
My own view is that 20,000 is actually the medium-risk option–the low-risk option (or, more accurately, lower risk option) is 25,000 to 35,000 troops as argued in this policy paper from retired Gen. David Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan. (He subsequently argued in an op-ed that 10,000 troops would be adequate but gave no reason why his earlier analysis did not hold.)
As for why 6,000 troops is grossly inadequate, I argued the point in this recent Washington Post op-ed in which I contend that this number would not only fail at supporting the Afghan security forces, it would also be too small for a counter-terrorism mission.
To be effective, Special Operations forces need to be deployed beyond Kabul. Afghanistan is such a vast country that it is simply impossible to generate intelligence and act on it if you have no outposts outside the capital region. But setting up those outposts–at a bare minimum we need a presence in Kandahar, the historic home of the Taliban, and in Jalalabad, the launching point for the raid to kill Osama bin Laden–will dramatically escalate troop requirements because each base needs to be protected and supplied. It is doubtful that 6,000 troops could get the job done, and yet I fear that whatever decision the White House ultimately makes it will be closer to 6,000 than to 20,000, much less 35,000.
It is understandable that the president wants to disengage from an unpopular war. But he should realize that there will be little difference in public sentiment whether there are 6,000 troops in Afghanistan or 30,000. Either way, Americans will be in harm’s way. They will actually be safer with a higher force level, which will allow better steps for force-protection and mission-accomplishment. Leaving a small number of troops isolated around Kabul would actually be a dangerous situation because every time they ventured off their fortified bases they would be assuming a great deal of risk because they would be going into enemy safe havens. That risk could be lowered, paradoxically, if more troops are operating in close conjunction with their Afghan counterparts every day to keep the enemy off balance.
It is not just the security of the United States or Afghanistan at stake here. It is also President Obama’s legacy. He, after all, embraced Afghanistan from the start as the “good war,” in contrast to Iraq. He more than tripled U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Like it or not, he has taken ownership of this war effort. It will not look good for his historical record if a substantial portion of the country falls to the Taliban–which, alas, is likely to happen absent a vigorous American role in bolstering the embattled Afghan government after 2014.