BRUSSELS — The top Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he is confident that NATO members will contribute at least 4,000 additional conventional military forces to the post-war mission in Afghanistan, which when combined with the American commitment of 9,800 would bring the total number of foreign troops to 13,800.
Additional contributions of elite special operation forces from allied countries like Great Britain and Australia could drive the foreign troop total in Afghanistan much higher.
President Barack Obama announced last week that he wants to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2015 and then cut that number down over the next 2 years. Other NATO leaders will hold a “force generation” conference later this month to determine their own troop commitments, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, at NATO headquarters on Wednesday.
A senior U.S. military official said the 9,800 American troops will consist of 8,000 conventional forces to conduct the “train, advise, assist” mission, and 1,800 counterterrorism forces.
“Right now, I don’t have any concerns getting to 12,000,” Dunford said, referring to the 8,000 to 12,000 range he recommended to Obama. With the president’s announcement, which sets troops limits, a timeline and a budget, U.S. commanders will begin planning the details of counterterrorism mission for the region.
The president’s plan was criticized sharply on Capitol Hill for leaving too few forces in Afghanistan beyond the war, and for setting a deadline to draw down to nearly zero by 2017. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Obama’s plan would result in a repeat of the withdrawal from Iraq, which in the absence of U.S. troops since December 2011 has fallen into extreme violence.
But the senior U.S. military official said they have heard no complaints in Kabul. “We’ve had a host of congressional delegations come through, as recently as last week. I mean, we have a lot of congressional delegations come through,” the U.S. military official said. “I’ll be honest with you, we have not had a single member that’s come through that’s taken issue with what we’ve outlined, in terms of the campaign, and who hasn’t left saying they had a better appreciation for where the Afghan security forces are right now and what we’re trying to do.”
Dunford said the plan for Afghanistan over the next 3 years will be different than Iraq because “what was outlined is not a withdraw plan. It’s a transition.” By the end of the mission in 2017, hundreds of U.S. military personal will remain, directing exercises, advising the Afghan military, and managing billions in foreign financing.
“It’s not a zero option,” the official said.
Pentagon officials are dismissing criticism that setting deadlines will empower the Taliban and encourage them to “wait it out.”
“A couple of significant things have happened,” the official said. The Taliban’s two main messages – that U.S. troops are occupiers that will abandon Afghanistan – are challenged. It’s hard for Taliban to call the U.S. occupiers with an announced withdrawal timeline and with Afghan forces now leading security, people don’t see foreign coalition forces daily anymore. On the charge of abandonment, the official said “we just stated we’ll be there” until 2017 and beyond.
“I think that’s changed the calculus for the enemy.”
The successful presidential election, new NATO commitments at the Wales summit in September, and an upcoming transfer of power in Afghanistan mean that the Taliban have lost political room to move in a significant change from the beginning of this year.
“I believe there is friction in the Taliban,” Dunford said. “If you compare the political space of the Taliban” from early this year when they were challenging the election process until the end of this year after the NATO summit and a new president is installed, “it’s significantly reduced.”