Pentagon leaders intend to present options for the number of US troops to keep in Afghanistan next year and beyond to President Obama by year's end, according to the Defense Department's chief spokesman.
"We haven't really reached a point where any single number has ripened into recommendations," George Little told reporters Monday, after the Wall Street Journal and New York Times quoted unnamed officials saying as many as 10,000 troops may remain after 2014.
With 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in May 2011, debate is centering on how many will be withdrawn over the next two years. The large-scale U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization presence is scheduled to end in 2014, turning over the security lead to Afghanistan military and police forces.
Obama campaigned for re-election on a pledge to "transition out" of Afghanistan, saying in an Oct. 22 debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney that "there's no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country." He didn't say how many U.S. troops would remain in the war-torn country.
Obama's decision faces multiple complications, starting with the absence so far of a Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S.-backed Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Among its provisions would be exempting U.S. troops from local law enforcement actions. Such an agreement is due, but not guaranteed, in May.
The failure of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pass such an agreement forced the withdrawal of all American forces from that country at the end of 2011.
Congress has provided more than $51 billion since 2002 to build an Afghan security force, which has about 337,000 personnel today.
Efforts to withdraw U.S. forces must be reconciled against challenges, including difficulties in training Afghan forces, insider attacks on U.S. and allied troops, government-wide corruption and insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.
"The odds of 'success' in creating a stable, secure, and democratic Afghanistan moving towards economic development on a national and regional basis by 2014 — or even 2020 — are less than even," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded in June.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told the House Armed Services Committee in June that he would advise against withdrawing any of the remaining troops next year.
"This is a very dangerous situation to leave behind, which could potentially destabilize" and "lead to the overthrow" of the Karzai government, he said. Establishing security "will be difficult enough to do with even 68,000 troops, and I fear impossible if we go substantially below that number," Boot said.
Afghanistan's national election in April 2014 was cited as a crucial event by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Obama's nominee to lead U.S. and NATO troops there.
Without successful elections "I'm concerned that the conditional" international contributions pledged this year "both for development and for security forces, won't be there," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15.
"The legitimacy of those elections in the eyes of the Afghan people are gonna have a lot to do with their willingness to support the Afghan government" and not support the Taliban, he said.
More immediately, U.S. commanders are attempting to reduce the number of "green-on-blue" attacks by Afghan personnel against U.S. and NATO troops. Since January, 37 of the insider attacks have killed 51 coalition troops, including 32 Americans.
The attacks have raised concerns "about the pace of progress toward the scheduled hand-off," wrote John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in his latest quarterly report.
Sopko also warned that "pervasive corruption in public life is widely seen as a major obstacle to reform, development, stability, and growth for the country."
Another immediate issue is encouraging Pakistan to do more to disrupt insurgents' sanctuaries near the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan.
"It's not apparent to me that there's been any progress" in reducing the safe havens, Dunford said at the Senate hearing on his nomination.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in response to a question after a Nov. 20 speech in Washington that "in many ways the success in Afghanistan is dependent on having a Pakistan that is willing to confront terrorism on their side of the border."
"So in order to really have a secure Afghanistan, ultimately Pakistan is going to have to take responsibility for taking on these terrorists and eliminating the safe havens," Panetta said.
The U.S. military commitment after 2014 is likely to include counter-terrorism forces and conventional force advisers who would train Afghan forces, Dunford told lawmakers.
Special forces to help hunt insurgents and advisory and assistance personnel are needed to sustain a "clear and compelling narrative" that the U.S. will support the Afghan government, Dunford said.
While there has been a lot of "discussion informally" about "where things might be headed," Little said today he wasn't aware of a "formal set of recommendations" from the current commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, "for formal passage to the White House."
Panetta is scheduled to hold his next discussion with Allen on Tuesday by video teleconference "on a range of issues," Little said. He said he wasn't sure whether a formal troop level recommendation will be discussed.
'I can't say for sure that it will be done completely by December 31,'' Little said. "We hope to complete the entire process as soon as possible within the next several weeks."