Today, that question lingers unanswered in Washington, where Department of Defense officials are wrangling over potential options for the military’s best way to leave a mountainous, rugged, semi-literate country in which it’s been since 2001.
According to The New York Times, Gen. John Allen, the United States’ senior commander in Afghanistan, has given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta three options. None of them are what we’d term the best — bringing home all U.S. soldiers. Practical, political and tactical reasons will keep that from happening.
Option 1: Leave 6,000 troops in Afghanistan that would specialize in counterterrorism efforts. The troops would be Special Operations commandos.
Option 2: Leave 10,000 troops, which would allow for an expansion of training of Afghan security forces.
Option 3: Leave 20,000 troops, with which the U.S. military could continue conventional patrols.
Most important is the risk to American lives. From a sheer numbers standpoint, option 1
is safer; option 3 is the most
dangerous. But none of the options would wholly prevent an end to America’s casualties
Neither Panetta nor President Obama, according to The Times, has tipped his hand as to which option they prefer. Given the timetable — almost two years before the post-2014 era begins — no answer may soon arrive.
Two years can be a lifetime in war. As we’ve seen from America’s time in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ebbs and flows of combat and insurgency can neuter plans before they’re fully implemented. To definitively predict Afghanistan’s stability 12 months or 18 months from now is a daunting task, if not impossible.
In both wars, U.S. gains have been submarined often by opposing troops, religious factions or, in Afghanistan’s case, tribal leaders whose allegiances frequently change. These are unconventional wars in the traditional military sense. Determining the correct way to end them has been just as problematic.
With so many campaign promises about ending America’s wars and bringing its soldiers home, Obama, along with his advisors, must decide where the ultimate priority lies: in ensuring Afghan stability through a U.S. troop presence, or bringing home an American military that has been in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
After all that time, any option that leaves thousands of American soldiers in harm’s way isn’t much of an option at all.