One of the four options President Obama is considering for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond this year would leave behind 3,000 troops, in Kabul and at the existing U.S. installation at Bagram, U.S. officials said.
Military commanders have recommended a far more expansive 10,000 troops, with more installations across the country.
But the military has spent the past several months studying what kind of reduced counterterrorism and training operations it could conduct under the smaller option, which is favored by some in the White House.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to brief NATO defense ministers in Brussels this week on the status of U.S. decision making. A senior administration official said that no announcement of specific troop numbers was planned but added that we’ll have to tell people where we stand in our thinking and planning.
During a December visit to Kabul, Hagel suggested the late-February NATO meeting was a cutoff point for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement that sets out the terms for an ongoing U.S. presence. Although the accord was finalized in the fall, Karzai has since refused to sign it, leaving the administration to delay its decision on numbers while threatening a complete pullout when the last combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
Nothing’s changed about our desire to get (an) agreement, because without one, we’re going to have to start planning for a complete withdrawal, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said Thursday.
Conversations with Karzai over the agreement have largely ceased, one U.S. official said. We’ve taken the position that we shouldn’t harass him anymore, because it doesn’t get us anywhere, the official said.
Instead, administration officials are in contact with leading candidates for Afghanistan’s April elections to replace Karzai, all of whom have said they would sign the agreement.
Under the 10,000-troop option, U.S. forces would remain in Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram and Jalalabad until the end of 2015, with 5,000 NATO and other international troops based in the northern and western parts of the country as part of a combined NATO mission called Resolute Support.
A second option would base a somewhat smaller number of U.S. troops in Kabul and Bagram until 2016, with authorization to travel across the country to train and advise Afghan forces as needed. Under the proposals, Option 1 could also merge into Option 2, with the entire force scheduled to leave by the end of Obama’s term.
The 3,000 troops under Option 3 would be restricted to Kabul and Bagram, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about administration decision making. A portion of the existing Bagram air base ideally would be available for military use to operate drone aircraft, but troops would not travel across the country.
The fourth and final option calls for a complete U.S. withdrawal, a prospect for which the White House sees little immediate political fallout. Washington Post polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe the war was not worth fighting 66 percent in a December survey.
A Gallup poll this month indicated that for the first time the number of Americans who believe U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake is equal to the number who say it was not.