WASHINGTON—U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan are seeking ways to maintain the level of combat troops there, even as they make plans to cut the overall number of American personnel to meet the White House's mandate to start shipping out forces by summer.
Under one early proposal, commanders in Afghanistan would cut from 5,000 to 10,000 staff positions, maintenance personnel and intelligence analysts. But the number of Army and Marine infantry would be untouched, as would brigade and battalion headquarters.
A senior military official said Gen. David Petraeus has yet to authorize any formal planning for the July 2011 drawdown of forces that President Barack Obama announced more than a year ago. But other officials said Gen. Petraeus and administration officials in Washington appeared to back the general approach of culling support positions that may be redundant or expendable, while preserving, or even increasing, the proportion of front-line infantry troops in the field.
"You're still engaged in a war and you don't want to give up combat power," said an administration official. "Why would you send home gunfighters and keep cooks? It doesn't make sense."
The plan to reduce troop levels, which President Obama announced when he committed 33,000 additional troops for Afghanistan in December 2009, has been a running source of tension between the White House and the military. Reducing troop levels is a political priority, especially with anxiety on the left about the length and cost of the war. Military commanders are wary that too fast a withdrawal could imperil what they see as their fragile gains.
As recently as last month, Vice President Joe Biden promised that cuts in July will "not be token" and will amount to a substantial reduction. But U.S. officials played down the chances top administration officials would object to a reduction that preserves combat strength, at least initially. "Obviously you begin with the people that make sense to bring home. But ultimately it does involve combat troops," an official said.
Gen. Petraeus believes he has been given wide latitude by the White House to determine how to cut, according to a military officer familiar with his thinking, and also understands the cut must be more than 2,000 people. Officials believe reducing forces between 5,000 and 10,000 could satisfy demands within the White House for a substantial reduction. But cutting at the upper end of that range could entail reducing the military's firepower, they say.
Although there is no official cap, military officials in Afghanistan have been told they can't exceed about 98,000 troops, which is close to the current deployment.
Some senior officers believe keeping the same number of combat troops in Afghanistan after the beginning of the drawdown is critical to breaking the will of the Taliban to keep fighting after the summer. "The message [we are hearing] from the Taliban is that we are leaving," said a senior defense official. "A significant number will leave, but I guarantee there won't be any combat forces cut."
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved temporarily sending 1,400 more Marines to Afghanistan, part of an effort to increase U.S. combat strength ahead of the spring fighting season and before the drawdown begins. Commanders want up to 3,000 extra combat troops in all to during the critical spring period to cement tentative military gains in the south of Afghanistan.
Separately from the July drawdown, officials say top commanders in Afghanistan are reviewing the makeup of their forces, looking for support troops that could be sent home and replaced with additional front-line "trigger pullers."
As part of this process, defense officials said, hundreds of support troops have already been sent home to make room for more combat troops. Mid-level officers in Afghanistan said it is often an arduous process to replace support personnel, noting that requests to fill staff jobs are subjected to intense scrutiny to ensure the positions are needed.
"We've got a lot of guys who never leave the wire," said one military officer, referring to a military base's perimeter. "I think we're asking what each one of them does and do we need what they do."
Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, voiced skepticism about relying on support personnel reductions, saying many play important roles and that their numbers in theater have already been thinned out. "It certainly makes sense to try to remove the lowest marginal contributor first," he said. "But I am skeptical that there are large numbers of people who are just plain not helping the war effort."
Some military officials believe many jobs could be replaced with civilian contractors or civilian government employees. Military intelligence analysts, especially those assigned to higher-level headquarters, can be replaced with officials from civilian agencies or even contractors.
Also, military officials said there was room to cut personnel in maintenance depots, where Army motor pool workers could be replaced with contractors.
Commanders are also looking at where they can rely on Afghans—soldiers or civilians—to fill jobs left vacant by the withdrawal, the officer said. Afghan and coalition officials said this week they had an informal agreement in place to raise the target number of Afghan forces—police and Afghan National Army—to about 400,000, about 30% higher than the current target. There are currently around 260,000 local police and army forces in Afghanistan.
The drawdown might give coalition commanders an opportunity to more fully mesh forces with the nascent Afghan army, a move that could help improve the capabilities of the Afghans.
"They're looking at everyone who isn't on the line; do senior officers all need aides? Who can be replaced by contractors? Whose job can be done by someone else? Can you make two or three jobs into one?" the officer said.