While details are still sketchy, it is increasingly apparent the U.S. military will maintain a sizable force in Afghanistan after 2014, when most American troops are slated to come home.
U.S. and Afghan officials this week announced they have fashioned a sweeping strategic partnership pact under which Washington will support the Southwest Asian nation for a decade. Neither side released the text of the agreement, but they said it covers everything from security, to economic development, to building a functional Afghan government.
But a former NATO commander this week offered a snapshot into the Pentagon's thinking about just what kinds of troops and hardware will be kept in Afghanistan, offering a window into how many American boots will still be on the ground after a formal withdrawal.
Contingents of U.S. special operations forces will have to stay to "mentor the Afghan National Security Force," says Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan's volatile southwest.
American medical evacuation personnel—and the helicopters they use on rescue missions—will also have to stay, Toolan says.
Some U.S. war planes like aerial gun ships and air-to-ground assault planes will have to remain there because the fledgling Afghan air force in 2015 will still be unable to provide support from above to its ground forces. The same is true for its fleet of intelligence-gathering and surveillance aircraft, Toolan says, meaning some U.S. planes and their crews will have to remain for that mission.
"Concluding the [agreement] demonstrates the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan like it did in 1989," says the Heritage Foundation's Lisa Curtis. "It also spells out an important U.S. red line to the Taliban, who have long called for expelling all foreign forces from the country."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at JBennett@USNews.com or connect with him on Twitter.