Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division practice medical evacuation skills at Forward Operating Base Ghazni in Afghanistan on May 24. Thousands of U.S. troops may stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. (AFP / Getty Images)
The Pentagon is considering a temporary “bridging force” of several thousand troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to help Afghans continue to fight the Taliban, a spokesman said.
The so-called bridging force — the exact size of which remains unclear — would likely stay for several years and be deployed in addition to the small cadre of troops the U.S. plans to station permanently in Afghanistan as a residual force.
“It’s an idea that’s being discussed in many different settings,” said Army Lt. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The move would extend the U.S. involvement in the Afghan War beyond President Obama’s target date for ending the combat mission by December 2014. And it suggests that the U.S. military’s troop commitment might be higher than initially thought when that 2014 deadline was set several years ago.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “is trying to float the idea that we are going to have to have more forces in Afghanistan [after 2014] than anyone previously thought,” said Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
“Ultimately, what this bridging force is, is an acknowledgment the [Afghan National Security Forces] are just not ready … and we have to have some bridging force that is capable of some combat operations in Afghanistan.”
The idea was first proposed publicly in late May by two former Obama administration appointees, including John Allen, the recently retired Marine Corps general who commanded the Afghan War for most of the past two years.
“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-[improvised explosive device] capability and in intelligence collection,” stated a report co-written by Allen and published by the Center for a New American Security.
Hagel traveled to NATO headquarters in Belgium on June 5 to emphasize U.S. support for a “post-2014 Afghanistan.”
“We will provide more personnel. We are looking at providing new, expert, professional assistance to the Afghan army in the area of contracting and fuel support — not just soldiers,” Hagel said. “We intend to be there for the long haul, and I made that commitment very clear today.”
Hagel declined to discuss the size of the force that will remain in Afghanistan.
Obama’s current plans call for taking the force of about 66,000 U.S. troops down to 34,000 by next February. More troops will depart in fall 2014, leaving a small force and basing footprint that will remain there permanently, Obama said.
The bridging force may reflect concerns that the Taliban remains a healthy battlefield opponent. The Afghan army in late May was fighting off a new incursion by about 150 Taliban fighters in the southern city of Marja in Helmand province.
U.S. Marines mounted a massive operation in Marja in 2010, and officials last year said it was largely clear of Taliban fighters.
Whether the idea of a bridging force will gain traction is unknown; many experts say Obama is reluctant to leave a large U.S. military force in Afghanistan after 2014.
Allen, who left his post in Afghanistan in February, said the White House needs to set a target for troop levels.
“I’d like to see it soon,” Allen said. “What the president has said to the Afghans is we will not abandon you. What is missing right now ... are the specifics associated with that.”
Allen said he formally recommended a post-2014 U.S. force of 13,600 troops.
White House spokeswoman Laura 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.