Lawmakers push to station remaining US troops at Afghan bases after 2014

The United States should forgo any plans to maintain U.S. bases in Afghanistan after American troops leave the country in 2014 and pursue a joint basing strategy largely controlled by decisionmakers in Kabul, several senior defense lawmakers tell The Hill. 

Any military installation in Afghanistan after the White House’s 2014 withdrawal deadline “will be an Afghan base with a U.S. component,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. 

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Without allowing Afghan National Security Forces to play a key role in shaping the American military presence in the country after 2014, the United States runs the risk of sacrificing the security gains made over the past decade of fighting, Graham said.

“We certainly need personnel there and they need to be somewhere, and that will be joint operating facilities, or whatever we and the Afghans decide to call it,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) added.  

Washington’s decision to virtually abandon Iraq without any residual U.S. presence to support the country’s fledgling security forces has resulted in rampant violence that threatens to tear the nation apart, according to Lieberman. 

“That ended up being a mistake,” he told The Hill on Tuesday. “We don’t want Afghanistan to suffer the same way.” 

However, Lieberman agreed with Graham that any American force presence in postwar Afghanistan needed to be dictated, in some form, by Kabul. 

“What the number of our personnel [eventually] is, that’s to be determined by the negotiations with the Afghans,” Lieberman said. “I hope we can stabilize the whole region by keeping some minimal presence there.”

With less than two years left before U.S. combat troops pull out of Afghanistan, the debate in Washington on what shape the U.S. postwar presence should take has reached a fever pitch. 

Gen. John Allen, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is expected to submit his postwar strategy to the White House and Pentagon within weeks. 

Recent reports state the four-star general will likely request a force of between 6,000 and 15,000 troops to advise and assist Afghan forces and conduct specific counterterrorism operations against Taliban and other extremist groups in the country.

However, Fred Kagan, a top defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested in a recent column in The Washington Post that the United States needed at least a 30,000-man force in Afghanistan, backed by a network of U.S. bases in the country. 

Kagan’s position was quickly disputed by advocates of a reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014. 

Former Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, refuted Kagan’s argument by stating it would take no more than 10,000 U.S. troops and no permanent American bases to help Afghan forces maintain security in the country. 

For his part, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he personally preferred a “limited footprint” in both troops and bases for the American forces that end up staying in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline. 

That said, the question remains on how Washington and Kabul end up defining what constitutes a permanent base, and whether that base would be under U.S. or Afghan control, according to Levin. 

In May, President Obama pledged that no permanent U.S. bases would remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline. The White House’s mandate on permanent basing is, however, forcing DOD to explore other options on where that projected force can be headquartered.

One option is to link new basing agreements with other countries in the region, where U.S. special forces can run counter-terror operations from outside of Afghanistan, a congressional source told The Hill in May.  

But that would mean having to renegotiate basing deals with countries looking to exact the maximum price from the U.S. for the right to operate inside their borders, the source said.

To that end, Levin said Kabul should look to leverage the brick-and-mortar bases already in place in Afghanistan, by either putting them under Afghan control or utilizing a joint U.S.-Afghan approach. 

 — Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.