Defense & National Security

America’s post-2014 Afghanistan role must accomplish 3 things

America's post-2014 Afghanistan role must accomplish 3 things

President Barack Obama wants to speed up the departure of our troops from Afghanistan no matter the consequences for that country, the region and American interests.   Leaving prematurely will only make our inevitable return more costly.

Last week Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House to discuss America’s end game in Afghanistan.  That plan was originally struck in June 2012 in the form of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that provides for a U.S. military presence after 2014, although the magnitude of our future presence was not specified at the time.

On Nov. 15, 2012 Afghan and American officials began negotiating the particulars of the agreement.  Those talks evidently prompted Karzai’s recent Washington trip to deliver his wish list of military equipment and long-term financial aid request ($10 billion per year from the U.S.) as well as to discuss post-2014 American troop strengths, and to deliver a promise to grant American troops legal immunity from Afghan prosecution – a linchpin agreement.

The lack of a similar status of forces agreement providing our troops immunity from prosecution led to America’s total troop departure from Iraq in 2011 and now that country is beset by sectarian violence drifting closer to Iran.  Both Karzai and Obama want to prevent a similar outcome for Afghanistan; besides, defeating al-Qaeda and bolstering Afghan forces to prevent the terror network’s return has been an Obama priority since he took office.

Recently Obama received post-2014 troop and mission recommendations from General John Allen, our senior commander in Afghanistan. Press reports indicate Allen’s courses of action varied from 3,000 to 15,000 troops and an unidentified White House source said the administration is inclined to select a low troop figure with the limited mission of counter terrorism.

The White House is also considering a more drastic option; a total troop withdrawal, according to Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.  Rhodes said, “The president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.” But a total withdrawal is viable only if Obama decides Afghanistan is no longer vital to American interests and/or he concludes the Afghan security forces are ready to ensure the stability of the country. Neither view is the case today.

A bleak December 2012 Pentagon report indicates the Afghans are not ready for the Americans to leave.  That report found that only one of the Afghan national army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the U.S. Further, the Afghan army is plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates requiring it to replace a third of its entire force every year and those trained men go home to villages rife with militants who are always looking for help.

Further, it is a non sequitur to conclude what happens to Afghanistan is no longer a vital American interest.  Even though Obama admitted last week our goals in Afghanistan have “probably not been met,” the military has “come very close to achieving” its central goal of dismantling al Qaeda.  But “close” is not good enough.

History reminds us that when we left Afghanistan three decades ago, civil war followed, and al Qaeda moved in to plot attacks on America.  Today Afghanistan is unstable and without continued American support it will quickly fragment, destabilizing Central Asia to include the nuclear-armed Pakistan and provide a breeding ground for transnational extremism.

It is understandable why Obama might want to totally abandon the Afghan war, now in its twelfth year.  Public opinion polls indicate the war is very unpopular especially among the president’s party and besides war costs pinch the fiscally strapped government.

There is also the matter that our investments in Afghanistan show few dividends.  So far America suffered more than 2,000 military personnel killed and spent more than $642 billion on the war and still the Afghan security forces are not ready, the Afghan government remains corrupt, their economy is totally dependent on foreign aid and there is no sign the Taliban enemy is ready to quit.  Besides, al Qaeda is very much alive in Pakistan and that neighbor is spinning out of control.

So what should our post-2014 Afghan footprint be and what must we demand of the Afghans in exchange?

We need to keep a credible force that sustains our gains and finishes the job of preparing the Afghan security forces.  Our post-2014 footprint must be large enough to conduct three missions: enable and advise the Afghan forces, conduct regional counter terrorism operations and run a network of forward operating bases.

That will require a force of 30,000 troops – approximately the size force we have kept in South Korea since 1953 and short of the size force we had in Afghanistan when Obama took office.  That force will operate enough bases from which to stage counter terrorism operations each requiring many hundreds of troops for perimeter security, quick reaction, medical treatment, airfield operations and much more.

We also need to keep fielding advise-and-assist brigades helping Afghan units to sustain their growth.  Further, some enablers are needed like aviation lift, surveillance, medevac and route-clearance packages until the Afghans have that equipment and know-how which is years in the future.

We must also have theater logisticians to support operations.  Support personnel tend to significantly out number our combatants and advisers and this isn’t a function we want to hand-off to Afghan contractors, who tend to be corrupt.

That footprint and mission will be part of the U.S.-Afghan post-2014 agreement which must include a number of demands for the Afghans as well.  First, Mr. Karzai must demonstrate good faith by rapidly delivering a status of forces agreement that protects our troops and allows us to begin detailed planning.

Second, Karzai must be realistic about his military equipment and aid requests.  The Afghans must “move beyond a wish list of equipment” said Gen Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after meeting with Afghanistan’s defense minister last week.  Dempsey said the Afghans must match their equipment requests with threats. They don’t need sophisticated F-16 fighters; rather they need Russian-made MI-17 helicopters, unarmed tactical drones, border-surveillance systems and counter-IED equipment.

Third, we also must insist the Afghan government demonstrate progress rooting out corruption which undermines government credibility.   It must show progress combining successful, honest elections with effective government especially at the local district level.

Fourth, the Afghans must demonstrate progress growing the agricultural sector which is the source of livelihood for the majority of the population and it must make progress in the mining sector which could reap massive long-term benefits for the country.

Finally, even though the Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive the Afghan government has made some gains.  The Kabul government must aggressively seek a political settlement with the Taliban, which is helped by a strong American military presence.

President Obama is tempted to abandon the Afghan fight.  Although that option or a minimalist force may be popular, the long term implications are very serious. And let’s be honest.  No matter what we do the Afghan war won’t end quickly and that country’s corruption and economic problems will continue.

So America’s choice is stark.  We either abandon Afghanistan accepting the potentially dire consequences outlined above or keep enough forces in that country doing the right missions to finish the job which could take decades.  I favor keeping enough forces in that country to finish the job like we have in South Korea, Germany, Japan, and the Balkans and since 1979 in the Sinai.

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