May 31, 2013

Ex-general wants post-2014 troop levels announced

WASHINGTON (AP) — The former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan called on the White House Friday to announce how many troops it intends to leave in that country after 2014.

Retired Gen. John Allen said Afghans need certainty on how many U.S. troops will stay behind after the majority complete their withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2014, before they will choose to side with the Afghan government or the Taliban.

"In the absence of clarity about the future, you'll do what you know," he said. "If...taking no position...has kept you alive," Afghans will continue to hedge their bets, he said.

Allen was speaking as the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, released a report by him, former top U.S. defense official Michele Flournoy and The Brookings Institution's defense expert Michael O'Hanlon.

The report warns the United States and its allies could risk losing any achievements if the drawdown ahead of the December 2014 deadline is accelerated or if the international community skimps on continuing aid to the country after 2014.

All three authors urged the Obama administration to announce troop numbers

"I'd like to see it soon," Allen said. "What the president has said to the Afghans is we will not abandon you," Allen said. "What is missing right now...are the specifics associated with that." Allen had recommended a post-2014 U.S. force of 13,600, he said, supported by additional NATO troops. Officials have said they are considering a range of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops.

White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas said "the president 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."

Allen retired, citing his wife's health, and declined to be considered for the post of NATO supreme commander. He was cleared of wrongdoing after he was caught up tangentially in the scandal that forced the retirement of former CIA Director David Petraeus, who was discovered to have had an affair with his biographer. Allen now advises Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Middle East peace talks.

Flournoy, now back at the think tank that she helped found, is a former Defense Department undersecretary. She said she believed President Barack Obama would be making the troop announcement soon.

"The internal discussions are making progress, and I think the administration understands the importance of clarifying these details," she said.

Allen also said that knowing the post-2014 troop number would help silence Taliban claims that all U.S. troops are leaving.

"Ultimately the announcement of the decision...makes it more difficult for the Taliban leadership to justify continued struggle," Allen said.

Allen said Pakistan would be more likely to help Afghanistan reconcile with the Taliban leadership that takes shelter in Pakistan's tribal areas, if it knew the size of the U.S. force that would stay on.

Allen and his co-authors acknowledge the U.S. campaign, and the surge of U.S. troops at the start of Obama's first term, did not bring the stability originally hoped for.

"Corruption in Kabul has remained very serious, Pakistan's cooperation with the war effort has been fickle and the enemy has proved quite resilient," the report said.

O'Hanlon added that Afghans need to be told in a nonconfrontational way that if Congress or the international community believes the elections to come in 2014 are corrupt, they won't be willing to keep donating so much money to the country.

The authors acknowledged that the goals Washington originally set for Afghanistan have shrunk from the hoped-for economic and political stability to keeping al-Qaida from using the poor nation as a safe haven.

"While the surge has not achieved everything originally envisioned, the United States can still with partners to degrade the Taliban-led insurgency and create a strong enough Afghan state to hold the country intact," the report said.

The authors note that in visits to the country, they learned the intelligence community has a bleaker view of the Afghan future than some of the military assessments.

"It was healthy that they acknowledged uncertainty and disagreement rather than trying to impose happy talk or optimistic assessments throughout the military command and intelligence agencies," the report said.