Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said he doesn't see a good end for the U.S. in Afghanistan. (Tom Brown / Getty Images file)
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The U.S. is unlikely to get a good outcome in Afghanistan and should not leave a large number of troops there, a retired Army general told Military Times.
"It is politically unsustainable to stay with any significant military presence, and it's unlikely that Congress will go for more than two years before they pull the plug on economic support for Afghanistan," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former chief of U.S. Southern Command. "I don't think kidding ourselves about the outcome is going to help."
The comments from McCaffrey, who has traveled extensively to Iraq and Afghanistan to provide feedback to military leaders, came on the heels of the Feb. 12 announcement by President Obama that 34,000 U.S. troops will come home from Afghanistan in the next year.
The withdrawal will cut by more than half the number of troops in Afghanistan and puts the U.S. on track to meet its Dec. 31, 2014, deadline to transfer full security responsibility to Afghan security forces.
What is to be determined is how many U.S. troops might stay after the 2014 deadline.
In a slide presentation titled "Withdrawal Under Pressure: Afghanistan 2013-2014, The Coming Civil War," McCaffrey said he believes it would take tens of thousands of troops on the ground beyond 2014 to achieve a positive outcome in Afghanistan, something the American people very likely will not support.
McCaffrey, who shared his presentation with a senior joint audience, said he would rather bring the troops home than leave behind small numbers, organized into adviser teams across the country, to fend for themselves.
"In Iraq, at least you had access to the ocean and the U.S. Navy, and access to friendly, supportive nations on the margins. You could rapidly withdraw forces or posture in Kuwait," he said. "Afghanistan is different. Afghanistan is the end of the earth."
More troops want out
McCaffrey's concerns are echoed by the troops, who have grown increasingly pessimistic about the mission, especially over the past year, according to a recent Military Times survey of active-duty readers.
In 2013, some 53 percent of troops said the U.S. is "not very likely" or "not at all likely to succeed" in Afghanistan, up from 39 percent in 2012, according to more than 2,100 active-duty troops polled by Military Times in February.
Those who are optimistic and say the U.S. is "somewhat likely" or "very likely" to succeed slipped to about 32 percent, from 47 percent in 2012.
About 39 percent of troops say the U.S. should withdraw its troops within the next year.
A significant minority, about 25 percent, believes the U.S should keep a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
McCaffrey disagrees. "It's hard to imagine a good strategy [for Afghanistan] that could be supported by the American people and that would work," he said. "The bottom line to me is it's unlikely that we're looking at a good outcome."
The chances of creating a stable central government opposed to al-Qaida and international terrorism, capable of standing on its own economically, and able to defend itself with its own army and police, are slim without a "massive, continuing international presence," McCaffrey said.
And there is "zero political will" at home and among the Europeans to continue that kind of support, he said.
The immediate short-term goal should be to withdraw U.S. forces and equipment safely and responsibly, McCaffrey said.
Unsupportive Afghan leadership
The situation in Afghanistan is made even more difficult by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his senior leadership team, McCaffrey said.
"The U.S. is capable of long-term engagement" in countries with welcoming, supportive governments, such as Germany and Japan, he said.
"Contrast that with Afghanistan," McCaffrey said. "Poor Mr. Karzai routinely denounces us as a co-equal threat as the Taliban."
As recently as Feb. 24, Karzai ordered U.S. special operations troops to leave strategically important Wardak province because of allegations that Afghans working with them are torturing and abusing other Afghans.
On the same day, suicide bombers targeted Afghanistan's intelligence agency and other security forces in four coordinated attacks in the heart of Kabul and outlying areas.
The brazen assaults were the latest to strike Afghan forces, who have suffered higher casualties this year as U.S. and other foreign troops gradually shift responsibility for security to the government.
Looking ahead, McCaffrey said it is critical for the U.S. to continue funding the Afghan army and police. "Minus U.S. financial support, they almost immediately come apart," he said.
As the drawdown continues, McCaffrey said he fears "an outcome that will fail slowly and expensively, with small groups of U.S. troops being abducted in decentralized advisory bases in Afghanistan."
If the only viable option is leaving small groups of lightly armed U.S. advisory elements "that are solely dependent upon Afghan security forces for their lives … then I would say we've got to get out of there except for a thousand people at the embassy."
And 500 of those, he said, probably should be heavily armed Marines.
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Andrew Tilghman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.