Post Afghan Mission, How Many U.S. Troops Stay There?

President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta both talked this week about bringing the Afghan War to a close. But the U.S. will maintain at least several thousand troops in the country once combat comes to an end at the end of 2014. The U.S. will spend billions of dollars financing the Afghan security forces.

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If Americans know one thing about the future American course in Afghanistan, it is probably the number 2014. That's the year the United States intends to end its combat mission - next year. President Obama meets this week with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai about the work that needs to be done before then.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we've still got much to do. Ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle.

INSKEEP: So much to do that it's worth noting 2014 is not an end date. Thousands of troops and billions of U.S. dollars may go to Afghanistan for years afterward.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: America's longest war is now entering year 12, longer than the Vietnam War, with still two years to go before the combat mission concludes at the end of 2014. And even after that, there will likely be at least several thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the primary mission of going after the remnants of al-Qaida - the very threat that got the United States involved in the first place.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVID BARNO: The goal here, post-2014 especially, is to prevent further terrorist attacks on the United States from this part of the world.

BOWMAN: That's retired Lieutenant General David Barno, who once commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan and is now a defense analyst. He says American commandos, even after the combat mission technically ends, will fight alongside their Afghan counterparts.

BARNO: Put together most likely a combined U.S. and Afghan special operations force to go out and actually try and kill or capture the individuals in this al-Qaida cell.

BOWMAN: The White House also says that those kill and capture missions will be the top priority. Ben Rhodes is the president's deputy national security advisor. He spoke with reporters this week.

BEN RHODES: We have an objective of making sure there's no safe haven for al-Qaida within Afghanistan and making sure that the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to assure the stability of the Afghan government and the denial of that safe haven.

BOWMAN: Making sure that the Afghan government has a security force, he said. That means training them. And that's the second key mission after 2014. The question now before the president is this: How many American forces will it take to handle the training and counter-terror missions? There are a lot of estimates.

Again, General Barno.

BARNO: I think if the focus is on counter-terrorism and the focus is specifically on al-Qaida, I think that that can be done with a force of under 10,000 Americans in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That's far too low for Jeffrey Dressler. He's a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and favors a force of between 20 and 30 thousand Americans.

JEFFREY DRESSLER: Essentially a force of ten thousand or lower pretty much means you're going to be confined to the base, you're not really going to do much in terms of operations. And you're limited in terms of how far you can reach.

BOWMAN: Privately, military officials say they expect a final number of around 6,000 soldiers or fewer. And a decision is likely several months off. But the White House is looking to keep the numbers lower than the generals, and part of that is the expense involved. The Afghanistan mission during the past decade has cost more than $600 billion. That's on everything from military operations to economic aid. And for this year another $100 billion has been budgeted. And we're not done yet.

TODD HARRISON: We could come very close to a trillion dollars by the time the combat mission ends.

BOWMAN: That's Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

HARRISON: Depending on how long we stay after that with supporting forces and the size of our forces, we could go over a trillion dollars.

BOWMAN: Its costs twice as much to maintain just one soldier in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. That's because the country had little infrastructure, says Harrison, and the U.S. had to construct everything, from roads to buildings.

HARRISON: It's cost us about 1.2 million per troop, per year, in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: So even a small force of, say, 3,000 U.S. troops would cost more than $3 billion each year after 2014. That doesn't include billions more for the Afghan troops. All for a war that's supposed to be near the end.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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