Most foreign combat troops are expected to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a deadline agreed by Nato and Kabul several years ago. The White House favours keeping a small force on the ground for some years after that, although diplomats insist they are not seeking permanent bases.
The troops that stay would train the Afghan security forces, which still need help with everything from bomb detection to medical evacuation and fuel supplies, and run counter-terrorism campaigns, particularly along the lawless border with Pakistan.
Plans are still tentative, but senior officials in the Obama administration would like to keep around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal reported.
General John Allen, the commander of US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan has made a preliminary recommendation that between 6,000 and 15,000 troops should stay on, the paper said.
Under the emerging plans, the counter-terrorism unit focused on al-Qaida could be under 1,000, the New York Times reported, leaving a substantial number of soldiers to support and train the Afghan police and army.
The US recently opened talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai on a long-term presence in Afghanistan, but any deal will take months or longer to hammer out. The question of immunity for American soldiers over civilian deaths, which in effect ended the US role in Iraq last year, is likely to prove a major stumbling block.
The issue has been set aside in early stages, US and Afghan officials said, because the intensity of the clash between Washington’s desire to protect its soldiers and the Afghan government’s desire to control trial and punishment of any future offenders.
Karzai, an outspoken critic of policies he think violate Afghan sovereignty, said last month that the question of protection for US soldiers might be a problem.
President Barack Obama must also grapple with how fast to withdraw the majority of troops who are not staying on, although he would prefer to decide a target for the long-term presence first, and then set a “glide path between now and 2014? the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior US official saying.
There are currently 66,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and Allen is expected to recommend keeping most of them on the ground until late 2013, so they can support the Afghan police and army through the summer “fighting season” next year. The country is usually quieter in winter when snow blocks mountain passes, and fields are bare of cover.