An Afghan National Army Special Forces medic communicates the patrol's location for pickup April 23 during medical evacuation training in Washer district, Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Sgt. Benjamin Tuck/U.S. Army)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has scaled back the support it will provide for Afghan security forces after 2014 when the coalition finalizes its shift to an advisory role, reflecting pressure from the White House to keep the American presence there small.
U.S. commanders had initially considered providing some level of air support, such as medical evacuation, and other support for Afghanistan’s military, since it will be several years before Afghanistan’s air force is capable of providing wide-scale medical evacuation and bombing.
But the pace of withdrawal ordered by the White House ruled that out.
“It wasn’t in the cards,” said John Allen, a retired Marine four-star general who commanded the coalition in Afghanistan until February. “The drawdown was going to prevent that from happening.”
Instead the U.S. residual force will be limited mostly to advisers at high-level commands and a counterterrorism force that can be used against al-Qaida targets.
The Afghan security forces have swelled to 352,000 under coalition support, but they have relied heavily on U.S. forces for medical evacuation, logistics support, intelligence and precision firepower.
Pentagon officials say the military has identified “gaps” in Afghan military capabilities and will attempt to accelerate the transfer of equipment and training to make up for the lack of support.
Allen said that the coalition has escalated the transfer of mortars to Afghan’s security forces and taken other actions to make up for the lack of air support and he is satisfied with the results.
“We’re already moving to fill some of” the gaps, said David Sedney, the outgoing deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
Sedney said the Pentagon has proposed increasing the amount of money that goes toward the Afghan securityforces by nearly $3 billion to almost $8 billion next year. The money will help fill the gaps by purchasing long-range artillery, drones and other equipment that the coalition currently provides, he said.
Still, analysts are concerned that the follow-on force may not be robust enough to adequately support Afghanistan’s forces.
Afghanistan’s air force will not be ready to provide extensive medical evacuation or attack support role for several years at least, according to Pentagon estimates.
“Field commanders preferred a post-2014 force that would be capable of continuing to provide air support for Afghan forces after 2014, including medical evacuation, but concluded that the administration would not go along with the numbers it would take,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army general who has served as an adviser to top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They had to make hard choices,” Keane said.
The White House has said it has not yet announced a decision on the size of the post-2014 force. But they describe the post-2014 force as consisting of advisers and a U.S. counterterrorism force aimed at al-Qaida.
“Any U.S. military presence after 2014 would focus on two basic missions: targeting the remnants of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces,” Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Air support after 2014 would be reserved principally for American and coalition forces.
It will be a tough adjustment. For the past decade Afghan forces have come to rely on the ability of American helicopters to pluck their wounded from the remotest valleys and jets to unleash bombs and strafe Taliban positions.
U.S. and Afghan officials are currently negotiating an agreement that would allow American forces to remain after 2014.
If an agreement is reached the follow-on force will likely be limited to advisers assigned to high-level headquarters, ministries and military schools. It will also have a counterterrorism force capable of conducting raids at high-level targets.
The military had earlier considered providing more extensive support to Afghan security forces, including airsupport.
In a 2011 interview with an Afghan television station, Allen said that “enablers,” such as medical evacuation support, would probably be part of the post-2014 force.
The composition of the American force after 2014 is critical because Afghanistan’s forces will need support in pressing the fight against the Taliban.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, who recently retired after serving as head of Central Command, said he supported a recommendation of 13,600 U.S. troops after 2014. Coalition countries would be expected to provide about half that number.
In a recent interview with USA TODAY Allen said he too supported that number, but said the mission could be accomplished with fewer troops if required. He did not say how many fewer.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, said anything below a force of 10,000 U.S. troops would be too small to provide the needed support to Afghanistan’s military.
“If you go below that number what you’re saying is you don’t want to be there anymore,” Hunter said.
Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official involved in discussions over Afghanistan, said she expected a decision on the post-2014 force to be announced soon by the White House.