Troop numbers – both Afghan and coalition – were among the questions posed to senior officials during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 22.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and James N. Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, told senators that training Afghan soldiers and police is going well, but it will require patience to ensure the job is done correctly.
The Afghan national security forces will surge to 352,000 later this year. But the Afghan government cannot afford to keep that many people in the security forces long-term, so that number will come down in the future, Allen said.
One study, the general said, points to a long-term force in the vicinity of 230,000.
“But there are a number of different options,” he added, “and we’re continuing to evaluate what those options might be, all the way from the current force, … which will continue to exist for several years once we have fielded it, down to a force that was smaller than [230,000], which probably doesn’t have the right … combination of capabilities.”
Any decision on the size of the force will be made in the future by Afghan leaders working with coalition personnel, Allen said. What’s more, any reduction must be made only after a careful study of conditions on the ground. “That security environment will be ultimately the key indicator of whether that drawdown should ultimately occur, so it’ll be conditions-based,” the general said.
Allen submits the metrics involved with these studies every six months. The next set of statistics will include an evaluation of scenarios after December 2014.
The United States has 89,000 troops in Afghanistan today. That number will go down by 23,000 by the end of the summer fighting season. Allen told the Senate panel that once that is done he will examine the size of the force and the likely threat it will face in 2013. “My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013,” he said.
Allen said 68,000 U.S. troops “is a good going-in number,” but he told the senators he owes the president further analysis on that issue.
Miller stressed the need for a strategic partnership with Afghanistan that will last long after Afghans take full security control of their nation by the end of 2014.
“The president has stated clearly that we have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan, and the strategic partnership will be a concrete instantiation of that,” he said. “There will be a lot of work to do after that, but it’s a critical milestone.”
Despite the past tumultuous months, Miller said, he is encouraged by progress made in negotiating the strategic partnership.
Senators also asked the men about corruption and Pakistan. A number of programs aimed at curbing government corruption appear to be making progress, Allen said. He praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his “good work” on the issue.
“He has appointed a presidential executive commission, headed by Minister of Finance [Omar] Zakhilwal, to partner with ISAF and with the international community on the issues of reclaiming borders, inland customs depots, and airports,” he said. “That’s an important move.”
The general told the senators he has not seen any change in the relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the Haqqani network, an issue that has contributed to strained relations between the United States and Pakistan.
Iran also is a neighbor of Afghanistan, and Iranian influence has to be taken into account as Afghan national security forces take control, the general said.
“Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do geopolitics,” he said. “And should the United States leave Afghanistan – should ISAF, should NATO leave Afghanistan – that would create, in my mind, for all intents and purposes, a geopolitical vacuum, ahead, however, of the [Afghan forces] being ready to take full security.”
Miller stressed that a stable Afghanistan is in the interests of all nations in the region.
“While the Iranians may not be happy about an American presence there, … nonetheless, the Afghan people desire it,” he said. “And that presence ultimately works to Iran’s benefit as well, because it will affect the cross-border flow of narcotics, the cross-border flow of weapons and human trafficking.”
About 1.5 million Afghan refugees are in Iran, Miller noted. “They might be able to go home in a stable Afghanistan,” he said.
Miller reiterated the importance of the strategic partnership. It is essential for security and also affects perceptions of the Taliban and others, including Iran, he said.
Iranian leaders have played both sides of the fence in Afghanistan, Miller said.
“They have provided some support to the Afghan government and they’ve provided some support to the Taliban,” he told the panel. “If they see it in their interest to stir the pot and so forth, I think that … the strategic partnership, the advancement of the [Afghan forces] and the clear expression of commitment by the United States and the coalition is going to have to cause them to recalculate. And that’s essential.”