By Mike Mount
The United States could keep between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after the official 2014 NATO withdrawal, say officials familiar with plans submitted to the Pentagon by the current U.S. commander in that country, Gen. John Allen.
Allen was tasked with developing an overarching plan for how U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan over the next two years, as well as solidifying a post-international combat troop presence. Now he has offered three distinctive options for the president, according to senior defense officials.
The officials said Allen's plans - created with input from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's office, the Joint Staff, the U.S. Central Command, and the White House - would give President Barack Obama options based on what he is looking to do in Afghanistan.
The plans are awaiting official approval from Panetta, the officials said.
According to the officials:
The low-end option calls for 6,000 to 6,500 troops that would be strictly for counterterrorism operations: hunting down Taliban and al Qaeda members and cells still operating around the country. This would require mostly Special Operations Forces, with a limited number of support troops and only a very small amount of training assistance for Afghan forces.
The mid-range option, involving around 10,000 troops, would still have the main focus on counterterrorism operations, but it would have a bigger training footprint for Afghan forces, with most of the focus on Special Operations troops and a limited amount of conventional troop training.
The 15,000-troop option would bring in a greater number of conventional troops for training Afghan Security Forces, as well as a bigger support element in addition to the counterterrorism forces.
The defense officials said planning for the post-2014 troop presence is still not complete, but it is very close. They said they expect next week's visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to involve conversations discussing these options. Officials said Karzai and Panetta are expected to meet at some point.
Last spring, NATO and the Afghan government agreed on a plan for the United States and international forces to end the NATO mission in Afghanistan and hand over full security responsibility of the country to the Afghan government. At the end of last September - as the final troops added during the "surge" that Obama ordered in December 2009 left Afghanistan - the president ordered Allen to assess the situation in the country and develop an exit strategy.
Defense officials said that Allen had to develop a post-2014 security plan before he could determine how fast troops could be withdrawn over the next two years, to ensure stability throughout the exit.
There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The capability of Afghan security forces has long been in question, with slow improvement in the military, and the Afghan police force lagging far behind. A December 2012 assessment of the security forces, which looked at a snapshot from between the spring and summer, showed that only one of the Afghan Army's 23 brigades was able to operate on its own, without U.S. military air or ground troop support.
Military analysts who closely watch Afghan operations say that while Allen has not yet made a recommendation for the pace of the force withdrawal, he is expected to suggest pulling troops out at a slower rate than the president would want.
One senior Defense official told CNN the United States is expecting the Afghan government to allow legal protections for U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in 2014.
The refusal by the Iraq government to extend legal protections for U.S. troops after the end of the war in Iraq was a major reason the United States left the country with no residual military training force.
The Afghan plans come as Allen prepares to leave Afghanistan in early February in a regular command rotation. Taking over for him will be Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Allen was nominated to take over as head of the U.S. European Command, becoming the top military commander for NATO forces. In that role, he was expected to be a key adviser on Afghanistan through its NATO allies. But his nomination is on hold while he is being investigated for alleged improper e-mail communications with a Tampa, Florida socialite, Jill Kelley.