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.
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."