Field commanders in Afghanistan are asking for more troops, ABC News has learned. Some are openly challenging the wisdom of withdrawing any U.S. forces by the July 11 date set by the administration. A senior official tells ABC that a substantial reduction is now "unlikely."
President Obama agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009. The number was widely seen as a "cap," but since that time another 1,400 Marines have been sent to the war zone and 700 or so support troops have added to the total number.
It's possible, says one source, that after the July withdrawal date there will still be more troops in Afghanistan than the president authorized in 2009.
The Obama administration and the Department of Defense have repeatedly said that although the withdrawal of U.S. troops will start in July the numbers will be determined by the "situation on the ground."
Unless there is what our sources call a "game changer," the situation on the ground won't permit "a significant loss of combat power."
U.S. and NATO sources tell us that although there have been positive gains in the south, in Helmand and Kandahar, the progress is considered "fragile" and the July time frame is right in the middle of the fighting season when the conditions will be at their worst.
Coalition forces have been targeting insurgent leaders all winter, taking territory and destroying weapons. But they expect hard fighting when the weather improves and the vegetation in key river valleys gives cover to enemy fighters.
"I think they will be back and hit hard," said one major who will be taking over a key section of territory west of Kandahar, the traditional home of the Taliban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that reductions in the numbers of soldiers in the south is "unlikely."
Regional Command East has revised what is now considered standard counter-insurgency tactics. They've withdrawn from strategic combat posts in the mountain valleys to concentrate on larger population centers or "key terrain districts."
Says one source, "COIN (counter insurgency) isn't working up there. The locals don't want us. They don't want anyone there. They want to be left alone."
U.S. Commanders Want More Troops as Withdrawal Date Nears
That leaves a small number of Afghan police and soldiers guarding the border with Pakistan.
"I'll need every soldier we have," says one colonel in command of a mountainous region near the border. His soldiers will now be used for "maneuver and disrupt" operations. Their mission is to kill insurgent fighters crossing the border.
ABC has learned that Gen. David Petraeus has told his commanders that the sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan are the key threat to mission success. A significant withdrawal from that area would put all recent progress in jeopardy.
Next week Afghan President Karzai will announce areas where his government will take over security operations. It's expected that the areas near the northern cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif will be turned over to the Afghan government. The Italian Army is in charge of the Herat area. The Germans have Mazar-i-Sharif.
"The boss is worried about NATO," says one source close to Petraeus. "If we pick coalition areas for transition to GiRoA (Government of the Republic of Afghanistan) those countries are going to say 'see you later.' The general wants to move those NATO soldiers to other areas."
If NATO troops cannot be redeployed, it is even more unlikely U.S. troops will be able to leave. It's setting up a situation where the allies are competing with each other on who gets to withdraw first.
The internal debate became public this week when Gates met with NATO leaders. The Secretary of Defense told them there was, "too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight."
ISAF command has already pushed hard to free up U.S. soldiers and Marines for combat. Private security companies guard many U.S. and NATO bases. Special Forces have been focusing on "Village Stability Operations," helping locals defend themselves from foreign fighters. The recent "Afghan Local Police" program, a sort of armed neighborhood watch, has been implemented to free up more Afghan Security Forces.
Allies Compete to Leave Afghanistan First
Ultimately it's the Afghan army and police that will determine when U.S. forces will go home. Gen. William Caldwell has completely revamped the training mission in the past year and gets high praise from military experts and Washington. Afghan Army units are starting to operate on their own, but the quality of the police is still uneven.
The numbers being trained are impressive, but Caldwell and the training mission are still fighting attrition and don't have enough qualified trainers. When they released numbers of elite "ANCOP," or Afghan National Civil Order Police, last fall during a one month period the attrition rate was close to 20 percent. Nearly one out of every five police quit. At the time the numbers in training couldn't keep up with the number of police leaving. At that pace, there wouldn't be any ANCOP left at the end of the year. The numbers have since changed. The monthly average is now just 2 percent attrition.
Finally, says one senior officer, "the enemy has a vote". His prediction? "Don't expect thousands of U.S. soldiers to be boarding aircraft on their way home in July." He paused, then added, "Maybe hundreds—not thousands."