Pentagon: Afghan commitment long
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said on Tuesday it is offering no “zero option” for the number of troops that would remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. combat mission ends in December 2014. It said in a report to Congress that substantial long-term military support will be needed to ensure that Afghans can hold off the Taliban insurgency.
The White House has not ruled out leaving no troops behind after 2014, although officials say the most likely option is a residual training force of roughly 9,000.
In its twice-a-year report to Congress on war progress, the Pentagon said Afghanistan's military is growing stronger but will require a lot more training, advising and foreign financial aid after the American and NATO combat mission ends.
The Pentagon's assessment was an implicit rejection of the “zero option.” Zero is considered an unlikely choice by President Obama, not least because his administration has pledged to stand with the Afghans for the long term. But Obama has grown frustrated in his dealings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Peter Lavoy, the Pentagon's top Afghan policy official, told a news conference that a number of post-2014 options have been developed, taking into account the Afghans' need for additional training and advising, as well as what the Pentagon views as a longer-term requirement for counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan.
“In none of these cases have we developed an option that is zero,” Lavoy said.
It remains possible that the administration will be left with no option other than zero if it cannot successfully negotiate a security deal with Kabul that gives the United States a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
Talks on a security deal began last year but have made little recent headway. Karzai suspended negotiations following a disagreement this month over a Taliban political office in the gulf state of Qatar that was to host peace talks. The office, which has the support of the United States and other countries, infuriated Karzai because the Taliban opened it with a display of the name and flag it used when it ruled Afghanistan.
Relations between Afghanistan and the United States plunged as a result of that incident.
In its report to Congress, which is required by law every six months, the Pentagon made no recommendation on the number of troops to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. There are about 60,000 U.S. troops there — down from a 2010 peak of 100,000 — and the total is to shrink to 34,000 by February.
The report said it will be difficult to judge whether Afghanistan can keep the upper hand against the Taliban until the exact size of a post-2014 U.S. military presence is determined.
The report painted a largely positive picture of progress in strengthening the Afghan army and police, but it offered cautionary assessments of the economic and political elements of its strategy for stabilizing the country.
“Effective government, the rule of law and sustainable economic development are all necessary for long-term stability in Afghanistan, but multiple factors continue to hinder them, including widespread corruption,” it said.
The report said that the amount of Afghan territory held by the insurgents has continued to shrink. It called the Taliban “less capable, less popular and less of an existential threat” to the Kabul government. And it said the number of “insider attacks” by Afghan forces against their U.S. and other coalition partners has declined.