Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, officials briefed on the discussions told The Wall Street Journal.
The White House convened a meeting of top national security officials Thursday to discuss the war and the future of the U.S. troop presence, the Journal reported.
Biden’s arguments for a smaller force, likely of 2,000 to 3,000 troops, have gained traction within an administration, the paper reported, that has become increasingly frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement allowing American forces to remain after the end of the year.
Some U.S. defense officials, preferring a post-2014 U.S. force of 9,000-12,000, contend that such a small force would be so limited that a full pullout would make more sense, the officials told the Journal.
“We are coming to grips with the potential for zero,” said a military official.
The discussions, said people familiar with them, are an echo of the debate over Afghanistan strategy in 2009.
The Wall Street Journal reported officials as saying that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is supportive of the recommendations of his military leaders, including the belief that a force smaller than 9,000 would be ineffective.
While Hagel has been skeptical of long-term overseas deployments, many of his military advisers support the higher troop level. U.S. military officials have outlined to administration officials the risk of the kind of small deployment backed by Biden, especially if the force were divided among three bases.
The recent discussions about Afghanistan are taking place amid deteriorating security in western Iraq, which some policymakers and military officials blame on a vacuum resulting from the total U.S. withdrawal from that country in 2011.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in an interview Thursday with a Washington Post reporter that he provided a wish list of weapons his government needs in a Tuesday phone call with Biden. U.S. officials told the Post that it might be easy to deliver those weapons, which include assault rifles and artillery, to Baghdad soon.
Despite the stunning revival of the Sunni insurgency, with militants carrying out an intense wave of attacks over the past year and seizing control of key cities in Anbar province, Maliki said he had no regrets that his administration did not reach a deal with Washington that would have kept some U.S. troops in Iraq after the 2011 pullout.
“Since the American withdrawal, we’ve had a friendly relationship,” Maliki told the Post, “but this strong bilateral relationship doesn’t mean we need American forces here.”
The request for stepped-up U.S. assistance is adding urgency to a debate over the types of weapons that Washington ought to provide to Maliki’s government and the leverage that aid could give the United States.
The weapons Maliki wants are a small piece of the massive list of defense items Iraq is trying to buy from the United States. Baghdad also wants Apache helicopters, some in Congress want assurances that Iraqi security forces won’t use the aircraft to crush political opponents or crack down on dissent in Sunni communities.