It remains unclear whether Afghan forces are ready to bear a heavier security load.
But Tom Gouttierre says that will also never be known unless the Afghan army and police are given the opportunity to rise to the challenge. That's why UNO's renowned Afghanistan expert said he supports the troop reduction that President Barack Obama laid out in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Obama said troops in Afghanistan would be drawn down from the current 66,000 to about 32,000 over the next year. It's part of the previously announced plan to wind down America's longest war by the end of 2014.
“Our footprint is just too big right now,” said Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghan Studies. “I support the idea of setting benchmarks, as Obama has, and meeting those. It would advance our interests to do that.”
Of greater concern for Gouttierre and others is the size and type of force that will be left behind in the country after 2014. Obama's speech did not detail those plans, which reportedly are still being finalized.
But the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is pushing a plan to get troop levels in Afghanistan down to 8,000 at the conclusion of the U.S. combat role, and then to shrink that contingent over the following couple of years.
One option on the table would reduce troop levels to under 1,000 by 2017, the newspaper reported.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., blasted suggestions that such a small residual force could remain. Fischer, who visited Afghanistan last month, said the generals she spoke to talked of a residual force of more than 13,000, and certainly no fewer than 9,000.
“It seems pretty clear to me that what the White House is saying is they're giving up on Afghanistan and don't care,” Fischer said. “I want to make sure that we have a force there that is able to maintain a mission.”
To do less would be dangerous and call into question the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers and their families, she said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said he's anxious to hear more details about the administration's plans for Afghanistan. He said he wants to make sure that as troops are pulled out, those who remain do not face an impossible situation. “But I'm not automatically opposed,” Johanns said.
While supporting the latest troop drawdown, Gouttierre also emphasized the United States needs to adjust plans as needed and also to maintain a sufficient postwar presence.
Gouttierre said the United States made a tragic mistake two decades ago after aiding the Afghans in their war against the Soviet Union, politically abandoning the region. That led to the rise of the fundamentalists who ultimately harbored and abetted those who attacked the United States on 9/11.
Gouttierre said Afghanistan remains in a volatile position, sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan, and has faced a long history of political meddling from its neighbors. Most Afghan people also would support a continued U.S. presence, he said.
“We would make a major mistake if we don't maintain a friendly, base-oriented relationship within Afghanistan after 2014,” he said. “We are still in Europe how many years after World War II, and we're still in Korea and Japan. We need to remember this is a strategic part of the world.”
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