Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press/Newscom

With the 2014 deadline for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan fast approaching, there are many questions regarding the number of troops that will remain in the country.

In a recent statement, Senator Carl Levin (D–MI) told reporters, “The number I think [will] be a small number.… My hunch is it’s going to be below 10,000.” Such speculation is unhelpful, especially since the U.S. and Afghanistan are still in the midst of negotiating a bilateral security agreement to set the parameters for any residual U.S. presence.

While at one point the Obama Administration suggested a zero-troop option in Afghanistan, most in the policy community agree that it is unlikely to come to fruition. A zero-troop option would be the “Taliban dream option” and would risk sacrificing the security gains of the past 12 years, said Lisa Curtis, Heritage senior fellow for South Asia.

To guard against Afghanistan again serving as an international terrorist haven, Curtis advises:

President Obama instead should commit the U.S. to maintaining a robust troop presence (at least 15,000–20,000) in Afghanistan after 2014 in order to train and advise the Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorism missions as necessary. The U.S. should also remain diplomatically, politically, and financially engaged in Afghanistan in order to sustain the gains made over the past decade and ensure that the country does not again serve as a sanctuary for international terrorists intent on attacking the U.S.

Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, noted, “The United States can stabilize Afghanistan if it maintains around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into 2014, dropping to over 30,000 thereafter (about what we have in Korea).” And experts from the Center for New American Security and the Brookings Institution issued a recent report cautioning against a hasty drawdown.

However, senior U.S. officials have estimated troop numbers anywhere from 13,500 to below 10,000. Reducing troops to such low levels could risk the return of terrorist networks to their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, thereby making the job of creating security and stability within those provinces a more difficult task for the Afghan National Security Forces. Moreover, failing to uphold our commitments in Afghanistan sends a signal to the Afghans that we are turning our backs on the region, as we did in 1989 when the Soviets were defeated.

The Administration should weigh the risks of leaving too few troops and decide whether a speedy withdrawal (which may satisfy popular American opinion in the short term) is worth the risk to U.S. national security interests.

Sean LaBar is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.