Afghanistan Withdrawal Plan Will See More U.S. Casualties, Warns Retired Army General

By Edwin Mora | July 29, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

U.S. Marines take cover during a firefight with insurgents in the village of Salaam Bazaar in Helmand province, Afghanistan on July 20, 2011. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Washington ( President Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2012 will yield more U.S. casualties and jeopardize the coalition forces mission there, U.S. Army Gen. (retired) John Keane told lawmakers this week.

Keane testified before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday about the way forward for the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.

Obama in December 2009 announced that he was increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops. Currently, the U.S. has around 100,000 military personnel in the country. The president announced on June 22 that 10,000 troops would be out by the end of this year and another 23,000 by September 2012.

“The president’s recent drawdown decision of 33,000 troops no later than September 2012 has increased risk significantly and threatens overall mission success,” testified Keane, a former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

He said those troops should instead be withdrawn by no later than December 2012, after next year’s fighting season is over.

One of the architects of the 2007 Iraq surge, Keane has recently provided assessments on Afghanistan to top military officials.

“The [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan] ISAF command is conducting detain assessments of the drawdown impacts and what can be done to mitigate risk,” he told the panel.

“What frustrates me so much about this decision,” Keane said, is that “when you ask our forces, U.S. forces, to do more with less, what that means are more casualties. And that’s the elephant in the room that we don’t talk about. But that’s the truth of it, what’s going to happen there. And they’ll step up to that with all the courage and determination that they display every single day. They know what’s going on there.”

According to’s tally of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, based on media accounts and Department of Defense casualty reports, at least 1,586 American soldiers in Afghanistan have been killed since the conflict started in October 2001.

Last year was the deadliest for U.S. forces in that country, with 497 deaths recorded. At least 228 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan already this year.

Keane noted that he recently provided a third Afghanistan assessment in less than a year to Gen. David Petraeus and had also briefed Gen. John Allen, who recently succeeded Petraeus as ISAF commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus is now director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Keane told the committee that Petraeus agrees it would be premature to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops by September 2012. Instead, said Keane, those troops should be withdrawn no later than December 2012, after the entire fighting season of next year is over.

That would require “going back to the Secretary of Defense and to the president and ask[ing] him for 90-days extension on that number and that keeps that force level high through the fighting season, and obviously we would get the kind of results from that and reduce the risk.”

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (retired) David Barno, who also testified, echoed Keane’s concerns about the enhanced risk for U.S. forces, but provided a more optimistic assessment of the withdrawal plan.

“I don’t think that the timeline for next summer is optimal,” said Barno, who commanded the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan from 2003-2005.

“I don’t think it’s a game stopper from the standpoint of what commanders have to do,” he said, but also conceded, “I think it makes it more difficult and increases the risk” for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. He did not elaborate on the risks he was referring to.

The most important thing that needs to occur, Barno said, is the adequate resourcing of the Afghan security forces given that they will be the ones who are going to have to take over the country’s security.

“Numbers I’ve seen point out that the number of trainers that they need in the Afghan National Army is about 2,800,” he said, adding that for the last several years the figure stood at about 1,600, or around 58 percent.

Keane highlighted that U.S. forces have attained success in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, but warned that a premature drawdown of U.S. forces from that region could reverse the accomplishment.

He attributed U.S. success in southern Afghanistan to Obama’s “decision to escalate the war and provide much needed additional resources. Most of the so called surge forces were applied in the south, the birthplace and center gravity of the Taliban.”

Keane also ascribed the success in the south to the improved quality and quantity of the Afghan National Security Forces, whose strength stands 52,000 short of the 352,000 goal.

The next region where U.S. military activity will be concentrated is in the east, which also includes areas bordering Pakistan.

Regarding Pakistan, Keane said insurgent sanctuaries in that country constitute the “engine of the insurgency” in Afghanistan, accounting for “many” of the anti-U.S. fighters as well as “80 percent of all the material for IEDs.”

The Afghan provinces that border Pakistan have been the deadliest for U.S. forces, according to’s casualty statistics.