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The 15,000 Troop Option

Plotting the course for post-2014 Afghanistan.

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

The 50 nations that today have troops operating in Afghanistan have collectively pledged to continue their mission well beyond 2014 and have drawn up a detailed concept of operations. But what remains under discussion is the size of the commitment.

Various options have been discussed, from the so-called "zero option" of complete withdrawal to a robust force of over 20,000 advocated publically by Generals John Allen and Jim Mattis, two key U.S. commanders.

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. This recommendation will go from General Dunford in Kabul up through both a U.S. and a NATO chain of command, and a decision may not be made until deep into the fall.

Instead of waiting for months, we should move now to decide and publically 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. It would also encourage the conclusion of the strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.

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. This level would also provide critical mentoring and training in the areas in which the ANSF are still developing -- logistics, intelligence, medical support, close air support, and so forth.

The 350,000 ANSF troops operating today are doing a good job this fighting season -- their first with responsibility across the entire country -- in taking the fight aggressively to the Taliban. There has been a sharp drop in U.S. and allied casualties, a natural outgrowth of the NATO force stepping back and letting the ANSF do the fighting. This augurs well for potential success if we stay committed to mentoring and training the Afghans.

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. There has been robust growth in media outlets, computer access, and cell phone use (there are more than 16 million mobile phones in Afghanistan today). 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).

Nevertheless, four critical tasks remain. First, there must be an election to replace Hamid Karzai, demonstrating the consolidation of democracy in the governance of Afghanistan. This is scheduled for next spring, and it must remain on track. Second, allied troops -- hopefully about 15,000 -- must remain after 2014 as trainers and advisors. Third, we must fund the ANSF to the tune of about $4 billion a year, which is a bargain compared to the $100 billion or more we have been spending annually. This bill will be shared across the entire coalition, with the U.S. portion being around $2 billion. Finally, the United States and Afghanistan must quickly conclude a basic security agreement that establishes the structure and rules under which the post-2014 mission will unfold.

If we accomplish those four items, we have a reasonable chance of success in Afghanistan.

There are, of course, huge challenges: corruption, narcotics, divisive governance, disruptive neighbors, and dependency on the international community for many elements of growth. None of this will be easy, but I remain cautiously optimistic we have a better than even chance of success.

Stating the level of U.S. and allied commitment is the right next step to ensure we optimize our chances for a positive outcome. The so-called "zero option" is not an option, but rather the path to a probable mission failure. Now is the time to commit to a 15,000-troop U.S. and allied force. 

Sgt. Logan Pierce/DVIDS

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