Senators warn Obama not to slash the Afghan military after US withdrawal

Leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee — including its Democratic chairman — are pushing back against a plan backed by the Obama administration to reduce the size of the Afghanistan security forces after U.S. troops pull out in 2014.

In a stern letter to President Obama, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) said premature reductions to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) could "jeopardize the progress of the past decade or weaken the security of Afghanistan."

“Having labored so hard and so long to recruit, train and mentor sufficient Afghan security forces to take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s security, we believe it would be a mistake now to undermine this achievement through premature and militarily unjustified reductions in the size of those forces,” the senators wrote.

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NATO plans to reduce the size of the Afghan forces from 352,000 this year to 230,000 after 2014. Military officials have argued that current size is a surge force, but there have been reports that financial considerations have played a role in the decision making.

Afghan forces have made "significant gains both in their size and professionalism," the senators wrote, referring to advances that have led NATO to handover a slew of missions to Afghan forces.

As part of a strategic partnership agreement that would establish a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for the next decade — which the U.S. and Afghanistan have agreed to an outline of — the United States is giving control of two key functions to the Afghans: night raids and control of detention facilities.

Handing over those missions is a key part of the overall U.S. drawdown strategy.

The senators argued that the strategy of reducing the Afghan forces down to 230,000 should only happen in if security conditions improve, and the Obama administration “should not presume a best-case scenario or wishful thinking regarding the security threats in Afghanistan.”

"We believe that this is the wrong approach for determining the future size of the Afghan security forces," they wrote.

Justifying a drawdown of the Afghan security forces as a way to keep costs down for the burgeoning Afghan government "is shortsighted given the tens of billions of dollars that will be saved as U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan," the senators said.

Any decision to cut or expand the number of Afghan security forces should not be driven by political or financial concerns, but rather “on a realistic assessment of the conditions they will be facing," they argued.

Levin has long championed the idea of keeping the Afghans committed to the 350,000-man force they want to field initially, after American and NATO troops leave.

Reports have suggested Kabul could look to reduce the size of that force after 2017. But Levin argues Afghanistan will need that size of a force to maintain security when U.S. troops hand control to the Afghans.

“We [must] keep the size of the [Afghan] army at the size it will reach” when U.S. forces leave, Levin told The Hill last Thursday.

The senators said that the United States must get buy-in from other coalition partners to fund the Afghan forces, and make clear that “the United States is prepared to work with them to ensure the ANSF has sufficient funding for the end-strength and capability necessary for the enduring security in Afghanistan.”