May 31, 2013

Allen: Afghans may need U.S 'bridging force' beyond 2014

The recently retired commander of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is publicly suggesting that the military may need to keep additional troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen co-authored a report that says the U.S should consider a “bridging force” to help support the Afghans after the end of 2014. That would be a temporary force in addition to any long-term U.S. military presence, Allen said.

The recommendation appears to run counter to the Obama administration’s stated policy. Allen retired in April after nearly two years as the top commander in Afghanistan. The “bridging force” would add a new step to the drawdown process. Under Obama’s plans, December 2014 will mark the final withdrawal for most U.S. troops with the exception of a small “enduring force” that would stay in Afghanistan permanently to help train the Afghan military and run counter-terrorism operations.

Allen spoke to reporters at the Center for A New American Security in Washington, a think with close ties to the Obama administration. The potential need for a bridging force was outlined in a report published Friday by the think tank. It was authored by Allen; Michelle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy during Obama’s first term; and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

“For two to three years after 2014, the United States may need an additional force package of several thousand personnel to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations force and certain other enablers in the medical realm, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection,” the report said. The authors declined to specify the size of the bridging force. Obama says today’s force of about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be cut in half by Feb. 2014 and reduced further by the end of December 2014 when the formal combat mission will end and the “enduring force” would remain.

A bridging force has never been publicly discussed by Obama or top Pentagon officials. Any troops assigned to such a force would have a broader mission than the “enduring force” that Obama says will remain there indefinitely. The future of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014 remains unclear. The White House has not announced the size of the enduring force it will seek to keep in Afghanistan. Allen says he suggested a force of about 13,600 troops in his formal recommendation to the White House before he retired.

Allen said the “bridging force” was not included in his formal recommendations to the White House because “we didn’t develop it enough.” “Its sort of a hip-pocket option should we need a specific focused capability,” Allen said. Laura Lucas, assistant press secretary for the White House’s National Secuirity council, declined to comment directly on the bridging force that Allen and CNAS recommended.

Lucas said Obama “is still reviewing options from his national security team and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014.” “As we’ve said, any U.S. military presence after 2014 would focus on two basic missions: targeting the remnants of al-Qaida and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces,” she said.

The CNAS report said the war in Afghanistan has not turned out as well as many once hoped. “The US/NATO-led mission has achieved only partial results, when measured against the initial goals of President George W. Bush … or the goals of President Barack Obama early in his time in office,” the report said. “However, the United States has wound up with a reasonable ‘Plan B’ for achieving its core objective of preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven” for al-Qaida and its affiliates,” it said.