The Afghan Troop Number Game
Posted by Jacob Stokes
July 2011 has crept up on us, and it’s decision time on Afghanistan. At the end of last year, a number of reports called for a steady slope of reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan going into the 2014 timeline for transition to full Afghan lead. There’s has been no reason why those recommendations should have changed since last fall. But along comes this Reuters analysis, following up on a Wall Street Journal analysis last month, which frames removing 10,000 troops over the next year as a drawdown that was “larger than previously expected.”
Well, it may be that. But it’s also much, much smaller than what a number of experts – including some, such as those at the Center for a New American Security, which are seen as closely aligned with Gen. David Petraeus – have argued for. Below, I lay out all the specific recommendations I’ve seen in order from smallest to largest/fastest. (The math on this is variable, so please excuse any errors – journalism school.)
White House (Reuters prediction, not announced of course): "10,000 troops over the next year"
Military plans via WSJ: “U.S. military officers in Afghanistan have drawn up preliminary proposals to withdraw as many as 5,000 troops from the country in July and as many as 5,000 more by the year's end, the first phase of a U.S. pullout promised by President Barack Obama, officials say.”
Anthony Cordesman of CSIS: “Anthony Cordesman, a former defense official and military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a drawdown of some 15,000 soldiers over the next year would balance political and military concerns without endangering the overall counter-insurgency campaign. ‘It shows you're serious about reductions. It's the first step in this transition process to 2014,’ he said.”
CNAS: “Today’s U.S. force levels of 100,000 would draw down by one-third to one half during this phase [by December 2012].” So down to somewhere between 50,000-70,000 by the end of next year, with forces drawing down to 25,000-35,000 going into 2014. (One note on fairness: this recommendation is cavaeted with a note about changing conditions, although I’d say it’d be tough to argue that anything has changed to make the situation any worse than it was in December 2010 when the report was written.)
CAP: "U.S. forces should begin repositioning within Afghanistan in January 2011 to reflect a renewed emphasis on stability operations in parts of the north and west... By the end of 2012 the U.S. military should have no more than 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. The United States should aim to reduce its total force to no more than 15,000 troops or less by 2014 at the latest as part of its long-term strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government."
Les Gelb: “With Osama bin Laden now swimming with the fishes, the U.S. has but one sensible path: to draw down U.S. forces to 15,000-25,000 by the end of 2013… The common-sense response to this hell hole is for the U.S. and NATO to complete their combat withdrawals by the beginning of 2013—not by the end of 2014 as now planned. That's sufficient time for friendly Afghans to prepare themselves. Besides, upwards of 25,000 NATO forces could remain for a period to help with training, logistics, intelligence and counterterrorist operations.”
Richard Haass: “All of this is an argument for doing considerably less than what we are doing, by transitioning rapidly (by mid- or late 2012) to a relatively small, sustainable, strategically-warranted deployment, one I would estimate to be on a scale of 10,000-25,000 troops."
Council on Foreign Relations Report, co-chaired by Richard Armitage and Sandy Berger: This requires some deciphering because it’s not troop numbers. But one gets the sense they certainly weren’t recommending a ten percent drawdown over the next year of a three-year strategy. Also note the point about having a reliable Afghan government. “The president has said that the United States will continue its present military surge until July 2011. If there is confidence that the current strategy is working, then that should enable the United States to steadily draw down its forces starting in July, based on conditions on the ground, as the president has announced. If not, however, a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted. The United States also cannot justify its current level of effort if it does not have the full support of the Afghan government.”
In other words, why isn’t the story “Expected troop withdrawals much smaller than experts recommended six months ago”?