The United States envisions only a minimal presence of American troops in Afghanistan once the NATO mission comes to an end in late 2014. SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned that fewer than 10,000 US soldiers are to remain stationed in the country beyond that date. Douglas Lute, special assistant to the US president on Pakistan and Afghanistan, informed NATO ambassadors of the plan at alliance headquarters in Brussels in the second week of February. He said that only half of the units stationed in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be made available for training Afghan troops.
Lute's confidential briefing was the first official confirmation that the US foresees an extremely limited presence in the country going forward. And the numbers presented by Lute have alarmed the alliance. Though the post-mission support and training mission in Afghanistan -- to be carried out by NATO in conjunction with eight non-alliance countries -- has been under development for months, the extremely limited number of US troops available puts the alliance in a bind.
The aim of the mission -- now called Resolute Support after a pair of name changes -- is to ensure that the Afghan army, built up with great effort in recent years, doesn't immediately fall apart once the NATO mission, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), concludes. But Lute's presentation made it clear that US President Barack Obama is determined to radically shrink the American presence in Afghanistan following 2014. In his State of the Union address this month, Obama publicized his intention to bring home half of the 60,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan by the end of this year.
The details of Washington's post-2014 plans were not known until Lute's briefing. Weeks prior, the US media had written of a "minimal option" calling for fewer than 10,000 soldiers to remain in the country, but the US government had made no official comment. Whether the topic is up for discussion at the meeting of NATO defense ministers this Thursday and Friday in Brussels is unclear. Because Chuck Hagel has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta traveled to Europe in his stead.
Raising the Bar for Germany and NATO
Presidential aid Lute left no doubt during his meeting with NATO ambassadors that Washington seeks to bring the unpopular mission to a rapid conclusion. As of this spring, all combat operations are to be led by Afghan military and security personnel while ISAF forces are to shift into a supporting role. Only by taking that step now, the US has told its European partners, can a withdrawal by the end of 2014 be achievable.
The strategy is not without risk. Such a rapid shift of responsibility could overwhelm the Afghan military, Lute acknowledged during his visit to Brussels.
Washington's mini-force raises the bar for Germany and other NATO member states. Lute said that the US expects that the German military will retain responsibility for Regional Command North and direct military training operations there beyond 2014. The US, he said, would coordinate training and support operations in the south and east. Italy is to continue its responsibility for the west.
But the US envisions a division of its forces. Only 5,000 of the 10,000 American troops foreseen by the plan are to be made available for the training mission. The other half will be earmarked for targeted operations against terror cells and al-Qaida camps as well as for the protection of US facilities in the country such as the embassy in Kabul.
In total, the post-2014 training mission is to encompass 15,000 troops. The US expects its NATO partners to plug any gaps that might result due to its limited presence. For Germany, the number is likely to remain large even after 2014, primarily due to the operation of the large camp in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Cause for Concern
Lute's comments regarding Washington's future troop numbers weren't the only part of his presentation that gave his European allies pause. While the US is prepared to continue offering air support after 2014, tactical capabilities such as the helicopter evacuation of the wounded are to be discontinued.
That is cause for concern. Almost all countries present in Afghanistan, including Germany, are dependent on American Medevac aircraft. The German military was only able to set up a functioning system for the evacuation and treatment of wounded fighters in the north with the help of the US. American medics were able to several times save the lives of German soldiers. Even if the post-2014 mission is to exclude combat operations, a functioning system to treat the wounded is indispensable.
Despite Lute's outline of US plans, the German government still hopes that details can be revised, noting that the final numbers have not yet been approved by Obama. But in his recent State of the Union address, the president made clear that "the nature of our commitment will change."
Military strategists in Berlin now know what he meant. The US will keep their future presence in Afghanistan as small as possible.