Afghans Want U.S. To Clarify Troop Level Post 2014

The United States has pledged to remain committed to Afghanistan beyond the year 2014. That's when the U.S. and its NATO allies are set to hand over the security mission to Afghan forces. But the U.S. has not yet said how many troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, and that is causing concern among Afghans.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The United States is moving forward with its military pullout from Afghanistan. The deadline to complete it is the end of 2014. Now, here's the caveat: Some U.S. troops will remain after that date. We don't know how many yet, and that uncertainty is causing concern, especially inside Afghanistan. We're going to talk now about why it might be important for the United States to clarify just how many troops will stay for the long haul.

And we're getting two perspectives. NPR's Sean Carberry is on the line from Kabul. Good morning, Sean.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Tow Bowman, our Pentagon correspondent, in the studio with me. Tom, thanks for coming in.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here, David.

GREENE: Now, let me start with you. Can you just remind us - we talk about this date, 2014, talk about a pullout, but it's not everyone. Who might stay behind?

BOWMAN: Well, expect at the end of 2014, that's when they say the U.S. combat mission will come to an end. And then after 2014, they talk about an enduring presence, and that will mean U.S. trainers helping the Afghan forces. And then special operations forces, including Green Berets, going on a counter-terror mission with Afghan commandos to go after any remnants of al-Qaida or their affiliated fighters.

GREENE: OK. Enduring presence, and people are growing more and more concerned that the Obama administration hasn't defined exactly how many people might be involved. Why is there concern? Why is that important?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon has long said that first, there'd be an announcement on how many U.S. troops would be stationed in Afghanistan after 2014, and then there'd be a timetable on reducing the current U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But instead, it happened the other way around. The president said, about six weeks ago, that the current force would be cut in half by next February to about 33,000 troops.

BOWMAN: But the military officers and policymakers I talked with want to know this: What's the end state? Will there be 5,000 U.S. troops after 2014, 10,000 or even more? Now, the number, they say, determines what you can do and also symbolizes U.S. commitment. And a White House official told me yesterday, David, the president is still reviewing the options.

GREENE: Well, Sean, let me turn to you in Kabul. What's the reaction been? I mean, are people waiting patiently, or is there a growing sense that we need to know what this long-term force is going to look like?

CARBERRY: Most people here are expressing a fair amount of anxiety over this uncertainty. I mean, this is a country that has fear of abandonment issues, and people around town often say that Afghan forces aren't ready to stand on their own after 2014, so they need international support, and they want to know what that is. Again, this country says it's been abandoned before, and so these sort of spoken commitments and reassurances that there will be a presence isn't doing enough for a lot of people.

They want to see concrete deals. They want hard numbers. And as a result of the uncertainty, some people in some of the less secure areas are hedging their bets and backing the Taliban in cases where they think the government might not be able to maintain security, and some people are starting to leave the country.

I just spoke with a young man the other day who's working at a U.S. military base. His job's about to end, and he says he's looking at options outside the country because he simply just doesn't know what's going to happen, and he and many skilled people are looking at leaving.

GREENE: And, Sean, you said something that sounds very important. You're saying that people who are not confident that there will be a large enough U.S. presence after 2014, that might cause them to support the Taliban instead. Why is that?

CARBERRY: Well, again, it's the stronger horse theory, that people living in villages, they just want to go about their lives, and they want whoever is going to provide security and stability to be there and provide that certainty, and they're going to back whoever that is. You know, if they think the government's not going to be there, then they're going to lean towards the Taliban and throw in their lot there.

GREENE: Tom, update us on what we can expect next. I mean, is the Obama administration going to kind of define what the long-term presence will look like at some point soon?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know exactly when they'll do it. And the question is: Why is there a delay here? And part of this is I think there's a debate within the administration about how many troops to have after 2014. The sense is conventional wisdom is the numbers will be anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops. But there's some White House officials who'd like to see even fewer troops. They just want to get out of Afghanistan.

But you have people like former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ron Neumann. He says that the White House indecision on the number of troops after 2014 is damaging the handover to the Afghans. I talked to one senior officer. He said people have come up to him in the palace - you know, these are senior Afghan officials or others, who say: How do I get to the United States? They're looking for an exit strategy of their own.

GREENE: Tom, thanks so much for coming in.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

GREENE: And Sean, thank you for being on the line from Kabul.

CARBERRY: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's Kabul correspondent Sean Carberry, talking to us about the long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

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