Defense & National Security

After Afghanistan pullout, fate of U.S. interests at risk

After Afghanistan pullout, fate of U.S. interests at risk
Afghan National Army soldiers march at their base in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan.

When the bulk of U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, according to widely publicized deadlines announced by President Barack Obama at the time of the 2009 troop surge and reiterated in a speech last year, sustainment of the tenuous and costly gains made over the course of America’s longest war will rest largely in the hands of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

And the fate of those forces, carefully trained and equipped by coalition troops, may well depend on adequate support from an administration rapidly tiring of the war, a panel told the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations last week.

The hearing, following a June trip to Afghanistan made by subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and several of his colleagues, was the second in a series of discussions about the readiness of the ANSF, featuring Defense Department officials and independent experts on the topic. Max Boot, a military historian and foreign policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the panel that the ANSF still needed medevac, air, and fire support, intelligence, and a number of other aids that U.S. and coalition troops are now providing. But most of all, he said, they needed to be secure that their funding would not be cut by one-third after the 2014 pullout.

Funding the ANSF at a strength of 352,000, the built-up force size at the end of this year, will cost the U.S. $6 billion, down from over $11 billion a year while in training. But the administration plans to further reduce funding to $4.1 billion, Boot said, a move that could spell disaster for any sustainable gains in the country.

“(The funding drop) will necessitate a reduction in the ranks of the ANSF by about 120,000 soldiers and police,” Boot said. “It’s far from clear where these 120,000 could find gainful and legal employment in Afghanistan’s economy. Many, no doubt, would end up working for drug lords and insurgents. This is perhaps the most calamitous step we could possibly take to destabilize the situation in Afghanistan.”

Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute and a native of Afghanistan, told Human Events that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Civil Order Police had made significant strides since the 2009 surge, increasing from only about 50,000 troops in 2007 and rapidly gaining leadership skills and confidence. Now, he said, upwards of 40 percent of conventional and special operations military missions in the country are led by Afghans.

But Majidyar reiterated Boot’s fears that leaving the troops without enough support to sustain their size could lead to disaster, expressing doubt that the nation would countenance a return of the Taliban to power, but suggesting the resulting instability could lead to civil war.

“It puts at risk all the goals of the United States in the country,” Majidyar said.

However, he said, the Taliban could reclaim some of the more recently cleared outposts in the south of the country if Afghan troops did not have the force strength to keep them at bay.

“Most of these gains in the south, which are reversible and fragile, the Taliban will return to that,” he said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, over 6,300 ANSF, both soldiers and police, have been killed fighting the Taliban since 2007. Just over 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began in 2001.

A communications director for Wittman, Abbey Shilling, said the congressman plans to hold up to two more hearings about the fate and readiness of the ANSF, though she did not yet have details about when they would be held and who would speak.

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