McManus: A long goodbye to Afghanistan

This week, the last convoy of U.S. troops in Iraq drove noisily across the border into Kuwait and shut the gate behind them. The next drawdown comes in Afghanistan, where American forces are scheduled to disengage from most combat by the end of 2014.

But the Afghanistan withdrawal won’t be anywhere near as final as the one we just saw. U.S. military leaders are working on a new slimmed-down strategy that would keep some American troops in combat against the Taliban for years to come, long after 2014.

The heart of the new strategy is a shift in the U.S. mission from fighting the Taliban directly to serving mainly as advisors and support forces for the new Afghan army. But some Americans would still be in the combat business, not only as frontline advisors, but also as special operation units and a quick reaction force to rescue Afghan fighters who got into trouble.

The strategy is still being debated and designed, and officials said they haven’t determined how many Americans would stay behind. “I’m not predicting tens of thousands,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told me and other reporters who accompanied him on a visit to U.S. bases in Afghanistan last week.

When I asked another senior official whether 15,000 was a plausible figure, he nodded and said: “I like that number.”

The force now numbers about 94,000; that hypothetical 15,000 would be a smaller presence than the United States has maintained in Afghanistan since 2005. But it’s still likely to come as a surprise to anyone who thought President Obama’s promise to draw forces down by 2014 meant a complete end to the U.S. combat role.

“Our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead,” Obama said in June, when he outlined his withdrawal timetable. “Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

U.S. officials in Afghanistan have tried to stress the flip side of the message: One way or another, we’re staying for a long time.

“We’re not going to be done by the end of ’14,” the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, told us last week. “The message that we will be here in some form … is a very important message for the Taliban.”

If the two messages sound contradictory, that’s because they reflect a continuing ambivalence at the heart of U.S. policy. Obama wants to prevent the Taliban from toppling the government in Kabul, so he ordered a surge in U.S. troops to a peak of more than 100,000 last year. But the president also wants to make sure that the surge is only temporary — and that American voters focus on the fact that the war, or at least our part of it, is winding down.

Those cross-pressures are driving the military’s scramble to draw up a new strategy, even though many officers on the ground aren’t convinced that the Afghans will be ready to take over on schedule. “The numbers are coming down, and we’re reacting to that,” an official explained.

Under the timetable Obama imposed on the surge, the U.S. force will decline to about 68,000 by next September and continue shrinking after that at a pace that’s still undetermined.

As the numbers come down, it will quickly become impractical to rely on U.S. units as the main combat force in the war. The burden will have to shift to the Afghan armed forces, which already number about 180,000 troops and hope to grow to 240,000 by 2014.

That’s how counterinsurgency warfare is supposed to work: a local government’s forces take responsibility for security on the ground, even if they need foreign help with training, supplies, transportation and air support.

Some officers, including Allen, have argued for keeping as many U.S. combat troops in the field as long as possible — pointing to their success this year in quelling the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and to continued heavy fighting in the eastern provinces.

But others argue that moving slowly risks not getting there at all. As long as American units are doing the fighting, they argue, the Afghans won’t get a chance to take the lead role as soon as they should.

When a U.S. officer leads American and Afghan forces into battle now, “he focuses on the success of his own [American] unit,” said one official. “If you’re an advisor, you have to focus on the success of the Afghan unit.”

Under the new strategy, U.S. advisors would probably be attached to Afghan combat units in teams of 12 to 16, officials said. They would help the Afghans plan operations, provide them with U.S. military intelligence and call on U.S. backup forces when needed.

The new strategy doesn’t promise any kind of quick victory. Instead, it promises mostly to give the Afghan army a chance to fight a long, slow war to convince the Taliban that they can’t win.

And even if the Afghan military performs well, the country faces problems that aren’t being solved: a government riddled with inefficiency and corruption, and the Taliban’s use of Pakistan as a shelter from which to fight.

Still, the new strategy makes a virtue of necessity: The numbers are coming down, and this is the best we can do with what we are willing to commit. It recognizes our impatience. Counterinsurgencies can take decades to fight; Americans dislike any costly war that’s longer than one presidential term.

Hawks won’t like it, because it reduces U.S. firepower in the war. Doves won’t like it, because it isn’t a definitive end to the U.S. military presence.

But it’s a coherent strategy and could even turn out to be a realistic one. Those aren’t bad benchmarks in a 10-year-old war that has seen its share of failure.