A former top U.S. general in Afghanistan called on leaders in Washington and Kabul to release the number of coalition troops the U.S. plans to leave behind after 2014.
The war effort in Afghanistan will not itself yield a prosperous, peaceful or corruption-free Afghanistan, says Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who stepped down as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in February. But a series of steps, including a forthright and public commitment to the Afghans, will create the stability needed for the U.S. to eventually withdraw its combat forces.
The success of the burgeoning Afghan government and military will rely on knowing the size and scope of the remaining troops – known as the "enduring force" – that will stay beyond the end of next year.
"On the First of January 2015, there is still going to be an insurgency in Afghanistan," says Allen. "There are going to be places where the Taliban still holds sway."
"The issue isn't whether the insurgency still exists in Afghanistan. The issue is whether it has the potential of being existential to the existence of Afghanistan," he told reporters Friday at the Center for a New American Security. The D.C.-based think tank published a study authored by Allen, along with Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Their report, "Toward a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan," offers specific steps towards success for the country's fledgling government and military following more than 12 years of war.
"We don't want to sugarcoat this," says Flournoy. "Afghanistan is going to remain one of the poorest countries in the world, one of the least developed, one of the most corrupt for years to come."
However, a clear commitment from the U.S. will allow the Afghan government to start planning for its own future.
"Clarifying the U.S. commitment would be very reassuring to the Afghans, would address their historical fears of abandonment, and would convince our NATO allies to stay in the game and do their part," she says.
President Barack Obama all but declared victory in Afghanistan during remarks at the National Defense University on March 23, but he stopped short of indicating how many troops would remain after 2014 or when he would make that decision.
"Today, the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat," he said. "Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us."
"In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014," he said.
Obama met with NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen Friday afternoon, and called on him to organize a summit for NATO allies in 2014.
"Not only will we be able to underscore this final chapter in our Afghan operations [at that time], but also to paint a picture of a future whereby we're partnering with the Afghan government on behalf of the Afghan people and on behalf of world security," Obama said Friday.
Allen has engaged in a series of meetings with top defense and White House officials over the past months, and has recommended a specific "band" of possible troop strength numbers. He declined to offer those specific recommendations on Friday, though he previously has said there should be roughly 13,600 troops left behind. A clear commitment from the U.S. would likely yield up to 5,000 additional troops from allied countries, the report states. Flournoy said that number will likely be released "very soon."
But that number may swell toward the end of 2014. The U.S. should also leave a "bridging force" in addition to the enduring force to help Afghan National Security Forces in tasks they are still learning. These will likely include special operations forces, medical evacuations, counter-IED training and intelligence.
Similar groups currently exist in Afghanistan, such as the U.S. Central Command force tasked with drawing down U.S. troops and equipment known as "retrograde operations." Those troop numbers are not included in total force calculations.
The troop count will provide critical information before the March 2014 elections in which Afghans will select new representatives, according to the report.
Billions in funding from foreign governments will be used in Afghanistan to ensure independent election monitoring, the establishment of free and distinct political parties, fair media coverage and protection from meddling outside powers, such as neighboring Pakistan.
"American passivity in the coming Afghan elections could be just as counterproductive as certain aspects of perceived American assertiveness," the report states.
"The world has an interest, and [allies] has sovereign rights and key interests in Afghanistan," O'Hanlon said on Friday. "We need therefore to look for sweet spots – modest but important ways in which we can help the Afghans think about how [to oversee] a good election campaign, election day and election outcome."