FPI Bulletin: Success in Afghanistan Demands More than a Slower Withdrawal

October 22, 2015

In late September, the Taliban recaptured one of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals for the first time since their fall from power after 9/11. The Islamic State has established a beachhead east of Kabul and al Qaeda’s presence is growing, according to Gen. John Campbell, the American commander in theater. President Obama responded to the growing threat by making yet another incremental adjustment to his crumbling strategy. The President announced that instead of withdrawing all 9,800 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, he would allow 5,500 to remain. While the President deserves credit for recognizing how dire the situation has become, a slower withdrawal cannot prevent further setbacks. Only additional troops and air power can break the Taliban’s momentum and prepare Afghan government forces to lead the fight.

In 2009, President Obama faced a similar situation in Afghanistan but responded very differently. In a speech to the Corps of Cadets at West Point, Obama explained that maintaining current troop levels was not plausible because “this would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through, and permit a slow deterioration of conditions there.” The President added, “It would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan security forces and give them the space to take over.” This logic remains compelling.

Two years later, as a difficult re-election campaign loomed on the horizon, Obama announced the success of the Afghan surge. The next summer, speaking at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, the President stated unequivocally, “The tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum.” Today it is clear that the Taliban have regained their momentum and that Afghan security forces are not prepared to stand on their own. The achievements that justified a withdrawal have melted away.

While the White House insists that there are no lessons to learn from the implosion of Iraq, because the withdrawal of American was not responsible for that catastrophe, the evolution of the President’s approach to Afghanistan suggests otherwise. In late May 2014, just weeks before ISIS shocked the world by shattering the Iraqi security forces in Mosul, the President revealed his plan to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of his term. “We’re finishing the job we started,” he explained.

Following the rise of ISIS, the President has incrementally backed away from his plans for withdrawal. First, he expanded the mission of the remaining troops in Afghanistan. This March, at a joint press conference with Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani, the President said that he would keep 9,800 troops in place through the end of 2015, rather than implementing a plan to bring the number down to 5,500 by year’s end. The stated reason for the change was that “President Ghani has requested some flexibility on our drawdown timelines.”

The President’s latest reversal has a received a disproportionate amount of attention because of its political significance rather than its strategic import. When Obama leaves office, he will not be able to claim that he brought all American troops home from Afghanistan, even though he declared an end to their “combat mission”. Yet the latest adjustment to the withdrawal timeline will not arrest the growth of Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS influence.

One of the most important things our Afghan partners need is air power. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively about the Taliban, says, “Senior Afghan officials told me this week that the Afghan army desperately needs more sustained air cover to prevent the massing of Taliban forces outside cities.” The massing of forces for large-scale operations is precisely what enabled the Taliban to recapture one provincial capital and threaten other urban centers. Rashid continues, “There is no proper Afghan air force or western air cover and the country has little offensive capability.” Without offensive striking power, Kabul and Washington cannot regain the initiative.

The current effort to train Afghan forces is also flawed. According to Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret and policy adviser in the Bush White House, “Today’s training and advisory effort is only engaged at the regional corps level, not the brigades and battalions actually doing the fighting.” There is a similar problem in Iraq, which led Michèle Fluornoy, who served as Pentagon policy chief from 2009-2012, to call for trainers and advisers at the battalion level. Philip Carter, also a former Pentagon official under Obama, explained that if advisers are restricted to higher echelons, they cannot bolster a frontline unit’s “will to fight nor its success on the battlefield, where outcomes are determined by the performance of companies and battalions, not higher level strategy.”

Waltz also worries that “Critical intelligence assets — particularly human intelligence resources — have been pulled from Afghanistan, either to meet the arbitrary troop caps set by the White House or to help out in to Iraq.” If so, this would be ironic given Obama’s persistent criticism that his predecessor diverted scarce resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The precise number of troops now required in Afghanistan remains uncertain. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Hill that senior military leaders have presented President Obama with several options, including a force of twenty thousand. This may be sufficient or additional reinforcements may be necessary. Until the President indicates that he wants to succeed in Afghanistan, rather than delaying failure until after he leaves office, military leaders may not develop aggressive plans.

While announcing the latest adjustment of his withdrawal timeline, President Obama insisted, “It should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan’s progress the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government.” A strong political settlement should be the objective for Kabul and Washington, yet the Taliban have watched the U.S. withdrawal accelerate despite growing violence. Thus they have little reason to compromise.

In his recent testimony, Gen. Campbell, the U.S. commander, told Senators, “If we fail in this worthwhile mission, Afghanistan will become a sanctuary for Al Qaida and other terrorists bent on attacking our interests and citizens abroad and at home.” The implications of his assessment are clear: success on both the battlefield and at the negotiating table depends on strength in numbers.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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