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The debate about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan beyond 2014 is ramping up, with dueling defense experts suggesting a force of more than 30,000 or fewer than 10,000.
But a third option — a complete withdrawal leaving no troops — is also a potential outcome, as U.S. decision-makers consider legal protections for American forces, domestic budget pressures and mounting threats elsewhere, some experts say.
As U.S. and Afghan officials begin formal talks about the future role of American troops, a key sticking point will be whether the Afghans are willing to grant foreign troops broad immunity from arrest and prosecution in local courts.
That same issue proved to be the ultimate deal breaker in Iraq and led to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country in late 2011.
Now the 11-year-old war with the Taliban and insurgents in Afghanistan is facing the same challenges, and U.S. officials are beginning to draw lines in the sand.
If the Afghans do not grant U.S. troops legal immunity beyond 2014, "I will not vote for one penny [to support the mission] and this war will come to an end," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Without legal protections, the Afghans could arrest and detain U.S. troops for alleged crimes. And in a politically charged environment, troops conducting routine operations might be accused of violating Afghan laws.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said immunity is "obviously part of any [Status of Forces Agreement] discussion," but he declined to say it would be a deal breaker.
But broader budget concerns may also help bring the Afghan War to an end.
"There are a number of plausible paths that get you to no American troops," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
A post-2014 U.S. mission likely will cost $10 billion to $30 billion a year, in addition to the several billion dollars a year in direct financial support the Afghan army will need to operate.
"At a time when people are beginning to talk about cuts to Medicare and Social Security, I think we may have a situation where the American people start to look at that price tag and say, ‘If you're going to cut things that are near and dear to my heart, I'm not sure I want to pony up a lot of money for troops in Afghanistan,'" Krepinevich said.
Even the Pentagon brass may reach a similar conclusion and prefer to "save some of that money to fund other defense programs to keep us ready for a range of challenges," he said.
Yet President Obama will play a major role in the decision-making process, and the commander in chief historically has voiced strong support for the Afghanistan War. Unlike Iraq, Obama may not want to see complete withdrawal on his watch.
"This is a president who, when he ran for election the first time, campaigned on the idea that we took our eye off the ball, and that was Afghanistan. I don't think he will be as precipitous here," said Mieke Eoyang, a defense expert with Third Way, a Washington think tank.
Many of today's 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will come home over the next two years.
A robust follow-on mission, however, could require troop levels above 30,000, according to influential defense experts Kimberly and Robert Kagan.
People who talk about "light-footprint strategies" are "amateurs" who don't understand military logistics, the Kagans said in laying out a detailed argument for keeping more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan in an op-ed published Nov. 23 in The Washington Post.
That prompted a direct and public rebuttal from retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who led the Afghan war effort from 2003 through 2005.
In an op-ed published Dec. 2 in the Post, Barno made the case that "fewer than 10,000" will be needed. He pointed to several places — Yemen, the Horn of Africa and the Philippines — where the U.S. is using drones and special operations forces to conduct effective counterterrorism operations with few troops on the ground.