Afghanistan’s 15,000-troop option

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It is time to decide and announce the specific number of American advisers and trainers who will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 as part of the new NATO mission, Operation Resolute Support.

After four years as the NATO supreme commander, and therefore overall strategic commander for operations in Afghanistan, I believe the correct number is about 9,000 U.S. and 6,000 allied troops, for a total of about 15,000 allied trainers who would focus on mentoring, training and advising the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces.

At the moment, NATO officials and the U.S. commander, General Joe Dunford, are waiting for the conclusion of the “fighting season” in October before rendering a recommendation to political leadership.

Instead of waiting for months, we should move now to decide and publicly reveal the commitment.

Articulating the number in the range of 15,000 total troops would break the Taliban narrative decisively, making a lie of their oft-repeated trope that “the foreigners are leaving”; it would reassure the Afghans; it would demonstrate needed leadership to the large international coalition that is awaiting U.S. decisions.

Why 15,000 troops?

The post-2014 mission needs to be spread across Afghanistan, with centers in each of the regional commands — north (Mazar-e-Sharif), west (Herat), south (Kandahar) and east (Bagram).

There will have to be smaller centers in some of those regions as well, and a reliable ability to protect our own people and potentially provide some in-extremis support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

All told, that will require 15,000 troops, still quite low compared with the 130,000 we had on the ground as recently as two years ago.

What does “success” mean in Afghanistan? It means a democratic (if somewhat corrupt) nation that has reasonable control over its borders (with occasional cross-border incidents to be expected), dominance over an ongoing but not state-threatening insurgency, improving if imperfect levels of economic growth and a forward-leaning and growing education system with equal access for females.

The good news is that a reasonable amount of progress has already been made on these and other fronts. Nine million children, 4 million of whom are young girls, attend school (as opposed to fewer than 500,000 boys under the Taliban).

Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time.

And, whatever its problems, the Afghan government remains relatively popular (with over 60 percent approval in recent NGO surveys), while the Taliban is deeply unpopular (with support from less than 10 percent of the population).

Now is the time to commit to a 15,000-troop U.S. and allied force.

Adm. James Stavridis is now dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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