KABUL – U.S. generals and diplomatic officials are preparing a new strategy for Afghanistan they hope will commit U.S. troops and money to the country far beyond 2014.
The strategic review underway is expected to be ready in time for the NATO heads of state summit in Chicago next May, a key focus for U.S. national security leaders hoping to secure financial and political commitments to Afghanistan’s future.
“There will be a U.S. military presence [after 2014],” General John Allen, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul on Saturday. “This is a work in progress,” he added, “we’re not going to be done at the end of ’14.”
Allen and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, at a breakfast in Crocker’s Kabul embassy residence, said the momentum is building for a long-term presence. November’s loya jirga, a national gathering of Afghan elders, confirmed that Afghan leaders want a long-term relationship with the West beyond 2014, while this month’s Bonn conference of Western contributors to the war effort -- a precursor to Chicago -- secured a long-term, sustained commitment to Afghanistan in what international officials are calling a “decade of transformation.”
“What we don’t want 31 December 2014 to become is the end of history,” Allen said. “It isn’t. In fact it’s the beginning of history for Afghanistan.”
Much of what that military presence will look like, Allen said, depends on ongoing negotiations for a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. But he expects it will at least include shifting more forces from partnered combat alongside Afghans into advising and training the growing Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), sounding close to the similar model that just closed out in Iraq.
“We can anticipate until the ANSF reaches its final form, and the Air Force is not going to be completed until ’16, that we’re going to have some requirement here for some period of time.”
“There have been discussions about a particular number,” Allen later said, but he felt it was too early to talk about it specifically as the reviews continue.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, in Afghanistan since Thursday, told reporters traveling with him between Kandahar and Jalalabad on Friday that he has asked Allen to look into a strategy for military forces beyond September, when the surge is expected to be withdrawn, and through the end of 2014, to include Allen’s opinion on the pace of the drawdown.
Dempsey said he wants Allen to find ways to shift the U.S. military into “a Special Forces structure supported by conventional forces.” Doing so, he said, “might” signal a shift of U.S. forces into a counterterrorism mode and out of a counterinsurgency, if Afghan security forces can take on the latter.
Dempsey and Allen have had “several conversations about it,” and the chairman expects Allen’s results in the first months of next year.
Allen said he is not basing any of the review on a predetermined number of troops, but would not yet reveal what the makeup of U.S. or NATO forces will be. “This is a premature conversation to have,” he said. Instead the intent is to show Afghan military forces they will still have Western support.
“The message that we will be here in some form – numbers, capabilities to be determined as a result of the negotiations with the Afghans yet to be had – that’s a very important message of hope for the Afghans. It’s a message of continuity for the ANSF. It’s a message of stability for the regional neighbors, and it is a very important message for the Taliban.”
The Taliban, he said, should know there will be no “great silence” over Afghanistan on January 1, 2015. “You better start thinking about some other course of action, because waiting us out isn’t a good one.”
One element missing, so far, from the conversation: American politics back in Washington and the public’s disappearing appetite for war. Amid a budget crisis, Congress already has passed spending levels below what the president requested for civilian efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq crucial to any post-fighting U.S. strategy.
“At some point they’ve got to be brought into the conversation as well,” Allen said of Congress. “Believe me we recognize the moment that we have here with the U.S. economy. …It’s not a matter of presenting them with a bill.”