The growing media and think tank debate over the future levels of U.S. military manpower for Afghanistan is as dangerous as it is mindless. The United States now plans to withdraw virtually all of its military and civil manpower from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is planning massive cuts in military and civil aid spending but has not made any details public.
At the best of times, military manpower totals are a largely meaningless metric. The issue is never whether there are 6,000 men and women or 30,000. The issue is what they are deployed to do, what roles and missions they perform, what combat role they will play if any, how well funded and equipped they are, and how they support an overall strategy, plan, and effort to achieve a real strategic result. In an insurgency, and in an effort to conduct armed nation building in a failed state, military manpower is an even less meaningful metric than usual. The issue is the future size of the civil-military effort, not the military effort alone. Any debate or analysis of the future U.S. role in Afghanistan that does not tie the two together is little more than intellectual and media rubbish.
Totals for military and civil personnel not only do not describe or justify the function of such manpower, they need to be tied to data that show where they are to be deployed and their future level of security. There are unconfirmed media reports that the United States now plans to cut the number of U.S.-occupied facilities in Afghanistan from some 90 at the end of 2011 to 5 major facilities by the end of 2014, and no one is talking about the end result in terms of the future security of U.S. personnel or the ability to perform meaningful missions without being exposed in the field. Moreover, our cuts will take place as our allies-and many nongovernmental organizations-almost totally withdraw from the country and with an Afghan election occurring in 2014 that will produce an unknown future leader of a largely failed government.
What really matters, however, is that there are no public U.S. plans that show how the Obama administration will deal with either the civil or military aspects of this transition between now and the end of 2014, or in the years that follow. The few metrics that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. government have made public only cover past combat performance, and they show there has been no meaningful military progress since the end of 2010. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have never issued a remotely credible report on the progress and impact of the civilian surge or any aspect of the civil aid program. (For a detailed analysis of recent combat reporting, see the text, maps, and charts in "The War in Afghanistan at the End of 2012: The Uncertain Course of the War and Transition.")
At this point in time, this lack of public and transparent plans and reporting makes it impossible to determine whether there is a real transition plan or a disguised exit strategy. All that is clear is that the United States is likely to spend at least $150 billion more on the war by the end of 2014 and suffer well over a thousand more casualties.