The Pentagon has told the White House that it wants to maintain 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 and then drawdown sharply to almost zero by the time President Barack Obama leaves office.
There are 37,500 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan going down to 32,000 by the end of February, The Wall Street Journal reports
. NATO allies have another 19,000 personnel on the ground.
Until now, post-2014 planning referred to keeping anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 American troops in Afghanistan, possibly for up to another decade.
The issue is complicated by the continued refusal of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security accord that would allow U.S. military trainers to stay in the country beyond the end of this year.
"If we cannot conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement promptly, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan," White House NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
"That is not a future we are seeking, and we do not believe that it is in Afghanistan's interests."
If the military's 10,000 number is adopted, the upshot would be a larger troop presence but for a shorter time frame. The idea would be to have enough boots on the ground to train the Afghan army, protect U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats, and then end America's longest war by the time the next president enters the White House.
The request to maintain 10,000 troops — a few thousand more than originally anticipated — has set off a debate within the administration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Pentagon brass, the intelligence community, and State Department all back the figure.
But Vice President Joe Biden has argued against maintaining much of a troop presence after 2014, the Journal reported. He makes the case that U.S. interests could be preserved by deploying special counterterrorism forces as necessary.
But the opposing voices say that without a muscular troop presence it would be difficult to operate intelligence assets to track al-Qaida and Taliban targets.
"To have an intelligence network, you have to have a footprint, and to have a footprint, you have to have force protection," an official told the Journal.
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