Washington: The US may keep a combat force of around 10,000 in Afghanistan, including a small counter-terrorism force after 2014 as a contingency against re-emergence of al Qaeda.
A post-2014 troop level of that size has been recommended by Gen John Allen, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, American media reports said quoting top US officials.
Under the emerging plan, NATO forces in parallel effort would advice Afghan forces at major regional military and police headquarters, but most likely with a minimal battlefield role.
NewYork Times said the planning for a post-2014 mission has emerged as an early test for President Obama in his new term as he tries to flesh out the strategy for transferring the responsibility for security to the Afghans. But it is not the only challenge: After the White House decides what sort of military presence to propose to the Afghan government for after 2014, it must turn to the question of how quickly to reduce its troop force before then.
As one of his last acts as senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen John R Allen is expected to submit a formal recommendation for how quickly to begin withdrawing the United States` 66,000 troops. Two American officials who are involved in Afghan issues said that General Allen wants to keep a significant military capability through the fighting season ending in fall 2013, which could translate to a force of more than 60,000 troops until the end of that period.
Afghan forces are to assume the lead role for the war next year, and a military officer said that such a troop level would enable the United States to better support them, maintain the initiative and control critical terrain.
Any troop presence after 2014 would require the consent of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and a long-term bilateral security agreement is now being discussed. Afghan officials said Karzai is willing to accept a US troop presence post-2014, as long as key demands are met. But a major demand is that American forces come under the jurisdiction of Afghan courts, the Wall Street Journal adds.
A similar demand was a deal breaker in security talks between the US and Iraq in 2011, precipitating a US withdrawal with no residual American force.
A US force of 10,000 to 15,000 would have its limits, said American defence analysts who have advised the military command in Afghanistan. Such a force would have to set aside Afghan training operations to focus on counter-terrorism efforts, they said. Such a narrow focus, though, could hamper a deal with Kabul, which doesn`t view al-Qaeda as a direct threat.
Gen Allen wants a gradual drawdown in 2013 and 2014, with reductions tied to key benchmarks including the fighting seasons and the April 2014 Afghan presidential elections, a process he has referred to as "stutter-steps."
Allen`s informal recommendation for post-2014 Afghanistan this month was submitted to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, said administration officials.
George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, acknowledged discussions have begun, but wouldn`t specify what Gen Allen has recommended. A decision on the post-2014 troop presence won`t be made until after US and Afghan officials complete negotiations on the security agreement.
"At the appropriate time, the president will make decisions about the future scope and size of our presence in Afghanistan based on what is in our national interest and in coordination with our Afghan and (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) partners," Little said.
A spokesman for Gen Allen, Marine Maj David Nevers, said the recommendations are "still in formulation" but would be forwarded to President Barack Obama before year-end.