After months of internal deliberations, the Obama administration has decided to limit the expansion of Afghanistan’s army and police forces over the next 18 months, largely to hold down the costs of training, equipping and paying them.
The White House decision, which has not been announced, also appears to signal that President Obama may approve only a modest reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan this summer, U.S. officials said Thursday.
With fewer Afghan troops to bolster security, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is expected to argue against a major drawdown of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country, several military officials said.
They said Petraeus and other senior officers in the Pentagon favor limiting the scale and slowing the pace of any U.S. pullout in order to preserve fragile security gains, especially in the south and east, where the Taliban presence remains strong.
Petraeus and senior Pentagon officials had pushed to add as many as 73,000 troops to the Afghan force, officials said. Instead, the administration has limited the addition to 47,000, which would bring the authorized Afghan force to a total of 352,000. The U.S. government provides most of the money to recruit, train and pay the Afghan troops.
The limited expansion of the Afghan force, plus the uncertain battlefield effect of the death of Osama Bin Laden, sets the stage for a difficult debate. The White House, Pentagon and State Department must determine how to meet Obama’s pledge to begin a “significant” drawdown in July.
A senior U.S. military officer in Afghanistan said the decision to limit Afghan troop levels would not affect Obama’s decision on how many U.S. troops can come home this year, but that it would factor into deliberations on withdrawals in subsequent years.
Petraeus has not submitted his recommendations on troop withdrawals for 2011 to Obama, but his proposals are expected soon, said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. Obama then must decide whether to follow the advice of his military commander, or order steeper reductions sooner.
The deliberations on the drawdown will be one of Petraeus’ last major tasks before he gives up command. Obama has nominated him to take over as director of the CIA, a job he will assume in early fall, after the expected Senate confirmation. The decision to limit the size of Afghan security forces suggests the White House may be willing to question Petraeus’ blueprint.
Officials said the administration made its decision because it would save money in the long run. The Pentagon says the war costs $5.6 billion a month, but senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week estimated the cost at $10 billion a month. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the decision.
Some experts question whether it makes sense to try to save money by cutting back Afghan forces.
Stephen Biddle, a military strategist at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration had been skeptical from the start about building a large standing army in Afghanistan. But he said it was “incoherent” to limit the size of the Afghan army and police as a cost savings measure, arguing that it was far cheaper over time to train and maintain Afghan units than to deploy U.S. forces.
“If what you want is security forces at the least possible cost, and you really want to reduce the U.S. presence, buying cheaper [Afghan forces] is the way to go,” Biddle said. “But the administration has been uncertain about that approach ever since the beginning.”
Pentagon strategists argue that at least 400,000 Afghan security forces are necessary to secure the country. Without international aid, Afghanistan’s revenue-starved government would have no capacity to maintain such a large force. For 2012, the Obama administration is seeking $12.8 billion for training and equipping Afghan troops.
Instead of the U.S. continuing to pay most of the Afghan military budget indefinitely, senior Pentagon officials said they have suggested to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the size of the force be decreased over the next decade if it is successful in quelling the insurgency.
The administration has said that Afghan forces will take the lead responsibility for security in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and that U.S. forces would shift largely to an advisory and training role.
The U.S. can meet that timetable even with fewer Afghan forces, the senior officer said, in part because about 30,000 village defense units are being recruited to supplement Afghan army and police units.
But the Pentagon’s preference for maintaining the large U.S. military presence will face intense scrutiny from White House aides. Some argue that U.S. strategy should rely more on targeted strikes against militants in Pakistan, like the May 2 raid by Navy SEALs that killed Bin Laden, rather than deploying large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for the next four years.
How Bin Laden’s death will affect security conditions is still unclear, officials said. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon this week that his death did not mean “this war is over” and would not lead to a change in U.S. strategy.
The U.S and its allies “still do not fully understand the regenerative capacity of the insurgency,” the Pentagon said in a recent report on the Afghan war. “The cumulative impact of [International Security Assistance Force] operations on the insurgency will not be apparent until well into” this summer.
In an interview released Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has generally favored a relatively small initial reduction in U.S. troops, said that the situation in Afghanistan was improving to the point where larger withdrawals could be possible.
“I think we could be in a position by the end of this year, where we have turned the corner in Afghanistan…we could see success ahead,” Gates told CBS’ “60 Minutes” news program, “and more troops could come home.”