Over the next year or two, the Obama administration will be deciding how many American troops to leave when combat forces are withdrawn at the end of 2014.
The current strategy has been to withdraw from a major combat role and pull back U.S. troops from villages to bases during the coming year with a gradual drawdown of the 66,000 troops still there in 2013 and 2014 as Afghans assume more responsibility for their security and safety. The primary question now is the size of the long-term, post-war U.S. presence.
A recent Wall Street Journal report said senior administration officials want to keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, a number midway between the 6,000 and 15,000 reportedly recommended by Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and international forces in the country.
Central to the debate will be determining the mission of the long-term American military presence, as noted by defense analysts Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan in arguing to keep up to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The smaller force being considered would allow troops to protect U .S personnel and bases, which will be essential if the United States is to maintain a permanent presence in the country.
It may also be more acceptable to Afghans, some of whom view us as an occupying force.
The United States will have to negotiate an agreement with the Afghan government to maintain a presence as it tried to do in Iraq. It failed there because the administration rejected Iraqi demands that U.S. troops be subject to their courts. It should also be rejected in Afghan talks.
Troop-level planning will have to factor in the scheduled cuts in defense spending in the coming years, which are expected to result in overall reductions in the Armed Forces. The administration also has to consider an American public tired of war and anxious to bring home the troops to end what is already Americas longest war.