Afghan Troops Numbers: How Low Can the U.S. Go?

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JIM WATSON / AFP / Getty Images

Presidents Obama and Karzai in the Oval Office in 2010; they'll meet there again on Friday.

With the ascent of the Biden-Hagel-Kerry camp’s view on U.S. troops in Afghanistan – bottom line, less is more – the size of the U.S. contingent is the top item for discussion as Afghan President Hamid Karzai prepares to meet Friday with President Obama.

The views of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State nominee John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel tilt toward a counter-terror strategy – kill the bad guys – rather than a troop-intensive counter-insurgency strategy – protect the good guys — as the U.S. winds down its combat role in Afghanistan.

The central question boils down to this: if the U.S. military and CIA can keep terrorists at bay in western Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — with handfuls of special operations troops and drone-launched Hellfire missiles — why can’t that minimalist approach work in Afghanistan as well?

There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with all so-called combat forces slated to be out by the end of next year. The first topic of conversation at Friday’s meeting will likely be the pace of the drawdown through the end of 2014.

The second item will be just how large of a residual non-combat U.S. force should be left in Afghanistan when 2015 dawns, to train Afghan forces and kill Taliban insurgents sure to try to topple the Afghan government. As we saw in Iraq, such nomenclature can change in a flash. It’s almost as if troops now deemed “combat forces” have Post-It notes affixed to their helmets that can be replaced with labels declaring “advise-and-assist forces” overnight.

But it will be different this time around, as Obama and Karzai begin hammering out what’s being called a post-2014 Bilateral Security Agreement. “We are not going to be responsible for the security of Afghanistan beyond 2014,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday.

In fact, the U.S. says it would entertain bringing all of its troops home by then. “That would be an option that we would consider,” Rhodes said. “The President does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”

Early suggestions that the 2015 U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan could be as high as 20,000 to 30,000 have shrunken to smaller options in the 2,500-to-10,000-troop range. Plainly, the White House is fed up with the corrupt Afghan government. It also views a large troop presence as a drain on its budget, as former Army officer and ex-NSCer Doug Ollivant pointed out Monday on Battleland.

Karzai better not overplay his hand in the mistaken belief that Obama is desperate to keep U.S. boots on the ground inside his country, outside military experts caution. “Absent the stabilizing influence of some numbers of U.S. troops, Afghanistan could slip back into chaos, experiencing a new version of the devastating civil war that rent the country in the 1990s,” retired Army lieutenant general David Barno, a one-time top commander in Afghanistan, writes at Foreign Policy. “Even though the Zero Option is not the best choice to protect American long-term regional interests, it certainly remains on the table.”