Like It or Not, U.S. Troop Levels in Afghanistan Now In Play

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One of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan on May 3 / Air Force photo by Adrienne Brammer

The White House and Pentagon won’t admit it, but everybody else knows the size and scope of the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan is now subject to debate. That’s the result of a perfect storm of factors — the killing of Osama bin Laden, the weariness of the American public, and the continuing zaniness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The official plan calls for a minor reduction in the U.S. troops presence — now about 100,000 — beginning in July. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have proposed sending 5,000 of those home in July, with another 5,000 to follow by year’s end. But if the field commanders are proposing a 10% cut in 2010, that’s simply the opening gambit. Others are talking about 30,000 — 30%.

Even gun-ho Republicans are getting antsy. On Friday, Politico reports:

A newfound restlessness about the decade-long war in Afghanistan has reached the highest levels of the House Republican leadership, sparking serious concerns about war funding and murmurs about troop withdrawal — a sign that the GOP may be undergoing a shift in thinking about overseas intervention.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed doubts about the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on Tuesday. “We should be working toward the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge and presses them to step up to that task,” John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and the committee chairman, said. “Make no mistake, it is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.”

Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee, agrees. “The broad scope of our activities suggests that we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan — but that ambitious goal is beyond our power,” Lugar said. “A reassessment of our Afghanistan policy on the basis of whether our overall geostrategic interests are being served by spending roughly $10 billion a month in that country was needed before our troops took out Bin Laden.”

A USA Today poll out this week had 59% of respondents saying the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished and the troops should come home; 36% said they should stay. Given the death of OBL, the darkening congressional and public moods, Karzai — and the looming 2012 presidential contest — there will be pressure to bring more than 10,000 troops home this year. Obama set the July target for beginning the drawdown after he dispatched 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in early 2010 as a way of calming nervous Democrats.

On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he is convinced the alliance he heads will “stay the course,” slowly turning over various provinces to the control of Afghan security forces until the whole nation is under their protection by 2015. He boasts that the Afghan security force now stands at 280,000, and will easily meet the target of 300,000 by year’s end.

The Pentagon wants at least 400,000 Afghan security forces are necessary to defend the country. But the Los Angeles Times reported Friday that the U.S. plan to train Afghans will be slowed down because of tightening budgets. That will increase pressure to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to preserve the hard-won gains of the past year, Pentagon officials say. But it will also increase the clout of Vice President Joe Biden and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have pushed for a smaller U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in favor of drone strikes and special forces.

Nonetheless, momentum has shited to Afghan government’s side, NATO’s Rasmussen told Time on Thursday. “In Kandahar, we saw the Taliban attack,” he says of last weekend’s offensive. “It was supposed to be a spectacular attack; it turned out to be a spectacular failure.”

True enough. But that’s what our side said about the Vietcong’s Tet Offensive in South Vietnam in 1968.