Obama keeping post-2014 plans for Afghanistan under wraps

President Obama is waiting to say how large of a military presence the U.S. will keep in Afghanistan after 2014 despite increasing calls from both supporters and critics for a firm decision.

Obama has pledged that the United States will withdraw half of the 66,000 troops still deployed in Afghanistan by early 2014, but he has not said what the size of the post-2014 force will be.

The president has received recommendations from his military commanders about what the U.S. and NATO force should look like after 2014, when U.S. combat troops are scheduled to hand off security control to the Afghans.

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Retired Gen. John Allen, one of the president’s former commanders, said it’s high time for an announcement.

“I’d like to see it soon,” Allen said at a roundtable with reporters Friday to unveil a new report he co-authored on Afghanistan.

Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that the U.S. should state its commitment because it will reassure Pakistan, which has been an uneven ally, and the Afghan people, who are unsure about control of the country after most NATO forces depart in 2014.

“What is missing right now are the specifics,” Allen said. “Giving [the Afghans] the clarity of what that enduring presence looks like will give them the confidence that they need.”

Michele Flournoy, another co-author of the Afghan report that was released by the Center for a New American Security, said that committing to a post-2014 presence would push back against the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. forces are leaving.

“It sends a really strong message to the Taliban, that we’ve got a strategic partnership in place, and now we’re putting resources behind that and they’re real,” said Flournoy, the former Pentagon undersecretary for policy. “And that will affect the Taliban perception and calculus.”

Obama signed a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year that committed to a U.S. presence in Afghanistan through 2024. The details of the agreement are still being ironed out, including the size of the U.S. force and the number of bases they will have.

Obama met in the Oval Office Friday with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, where the president announced there would be a final NATO summit on the Afghan war in 2014.

At the summit, Obama said: “Not only will we be able to underscore this final chapter in our Afghan operations, but also to paint a picture of a future whereby we’re partnering with the Afghan government on behalf of the Afghan people and on behalf of world security.”

He did not say whether he and Rasmussen discussed troop levels for Afghanistan post-2014. Asked whether they had reached any conclusions Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he had no updates on the issue to provide.

Administration officials have suggested the U.S. could have between 8,000 and 12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, primarily to play an advisory role and to conduct counterterrorism operations.

The Pentagon and the White House, however, appear to be at odds over what the U.S. presence should be.

Allen on Friday said that he had recommended 13,600 troops to Obama, a number first stated publicly by former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, who succeeded Allen as the top U.S. Afghan commander, has also backed a troop level of 13,600.

That American presence would be backed up by a 6,000- to 7,000-troop NATO force, according to the Mattis plan.

Congressional Republicans, who are also pushing for a troop figure from Obama, claim Dunford and others are being pressured by the White House to accept a smaller U.S. troop presence in the country.

Dunford “is getting a lot of pressure from political people to pick a number less than 13,600,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) told reporters earlier this year.

“When our generals tell us that 13,600 is sort of the right number, the bottom line number, I hope we do not deviate too much from that,” Graham said.

Obama is likely to face a backlash from Republicans — who have suggested as many as 20,000 troops should remain — if he does announce a smaller post-2014 force.
Graham's earlier comments came after Dunford declined to acknowledge his support for the larger post-war force during an April hearing.

At the time, Dunford told committee members the situation in the country was too fluid for him to publicly support the Mattis plan.

Aside from troop numbers, questions still remain about whether Washington and Kabul can reach a new troop immunity deal, a key requirement for any postwar force in Afghanistan. If the agreement is finalized, U.S. forces would not be subject to criminal prosecution by Afghan courts for counterterrorism or other combat operations.

Without such a deal, the U.S. could remove all troops from Afghanistan after 2014.

The United States has similar immunity agreements in place with each country where American forces are stationed. The lack of such an agreement prevented Washington from having a postwar force in place in Iraq when U.S. troops withdrew from the country in December 2011.