Despite recent reports that the White House is considering a total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after 2014, the Pentagon said Tuesday that “substantial” long-term U.S. military support -- including troops on the ground in training and support roles -- will be needed to prop up Afghan security forces after next year’s deadline for ending the combat mission.
In its biannual report to Congress on progress in the war, the Pentagon argued that Afghanistan's military is growing stronger but will require a lot more training, advising and foreign financial aid after the U.S. and NATO combat mission ends.
Meanwhile, the White House has not ruled out leaving no troops behind after 2014, although officials have told the AP that the most likely option is a residual training force of roughly 9,000.
Taliban attacks have been on the uptick in recent months, and the United Nations reported Wednesday that civilian casualties -- more than half of them caused by insurgent bomb attacks -- increased by 23% in the first half of 2013.
The Pentagon's report implicitlu rejected the "zero option," in which the U.S. would leave no troops in the country after the NATO withdrawal. While that option is considered unlikely, President Obama has grown frustrated in his dealings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in recent months, and the White House has publicly floated the idea of total withdrawal.
Peter Lavoy, the Pentagon's top Afghan policy official, spoke about the report at a news conference Tuesday, saying that a number of post-2014 options have been developed. Those options will take into account the Afghans' need for additional training and advising, as well as what the Pentagon views as a longer-term requirement for U.S. counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan, he said.
"In none of these cases have we developed an option that is zero," Lavoy said.
It remains possible that the administration will be left with no option other than zero if it cannot successfully negotiate a security deal with Kabul that gives the U.S. a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014. Failure to secure Baghdad's acceptance of a similar agreement set the stage for full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011.
Talks on a security deal began last year but have made little recent headway as Karzai pushed back against Washington's efforts to broker a political agreement with the Taliban, whose insurgency remains far from defeated despite almost 12 years of U.S. military involvement. Karzai suspended talks on a security deal earlier this month in protest at the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar, intended to facilitate peace talks. Karzai was outraged by the Taliban facility adopting the trappings of an embassy.
But the dispute over the Qatar office symbolizes the deeper problem facing the U.S. in Afghanistan: It needs the cooperation of the Karzai government, while recognizing that stability after 2014 requires a political agreement with the Taliban. But the Taliban dismisses Karzai as a 'puppet' of the U.S., and he obviously has no interest in pursuing a political settlement in which he could be marginalized.
In its report to Congress, which is required by law every six months, the Pentagon made no recommendation on the number of U.S. troops to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. There are currently about 60,000 U.S. troops there — down from a 2010 peak of 100,000 — and the total is to shrink to 34,000 by February.
The report said it will be difficult to judge whether Afghan security forces can keep the Taliban at bay until the exact size of a post-2014 U.S. military presence is determined.
The Pentagon -- as it has done througu much of the inconclusive conflict that has become the longest in U.S. history -- painted a largely positive picture of progress in strengthening the Afghan army and police, but it offered cautionary assessments of the economic and political elements of its strategy for stabilizing the country.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press