Moving toward this long-term posture in 2013 will likely ensure its failure. As we fall below 68,000 troops, we will have to withdraw from important terrain and lose the ability to maneuver. Our forces won’t be able to operate in most of southern Afghanistan, conduct offensive operations or help the ANSF consolidate and mature. We must create basic stability in 2013 that the ANSF can sustain to set conditions for any long-term U.S. counterterrorism operations. Doing so requires two things this White House appears to want to avoid: keeping U.S. force levels where they are for the next two years; and implementing a serious political strategy aimed not at our enemies but at the people we need to be our long-term partners.
The United States can stabilize Afghanistan if it maintains around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into 2014, dropping to over 30,000 thereafter (about what we have in Korea). The idea that the war is inevitably lost is a convenient mask behind which decision-makers hide to deflect responsibility for pulling out troops who are making a real difference.
We have argued that the current defeatism about Afghanistan is overdrawn and unfounded. But it is more important for Americans to internalize a simple fact: We must either stabilize Afghanistan at this minimum level or abandon the fight against al-Qaeda and its allies in South Asia. Any alternative “light footprint” strategy is a dangerous mirage.