FPI Bulletin: Will Obama Have “Strategic Patience” in Afghanistan?

March 21, 2015

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah are arriving in Washington at a critical moment in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.  President Obama announced plans last spring to cut U.S. forces in Afghanistan down to 5,500 troops by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, no troops would be left except for a “normal embassy presence” in Kabul. Since then, the rise of the Islamic State and collapse or Iraqi Security Forces has reminded Washington about the risks of a precipitous withdrawal. The President is now reportedly considering a slower drawdown schedule, but appears committed to leaving no troops beyond 2016, so that he can take credit for ending the war during his presidency.

This would be a serious mistake. In a hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee, Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) asked Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter whether the withdrawal should be calendar-driven or based on conditions. Carter testified, “in any military campaign we must be conditions based.” President Obama ought to heed Dr. Carter’s advice. The Taliban have become more aggressive while Afghan forces are losing thousands of troops in battle. The time has come for President Obama to demonstrate the “strategic patience” he claims to value so much.

A Surge Too Small and Brief

As a candidate for president, then Senator Obama spoke bluntly about the importance of victory in Afghanistan: “We will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal.” He emphasized, “As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared.” At the onset of his administration, President Obama deployed 21,000 additional combat troops and trainers for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  This increase fulfilled a long-standing request for more forces from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and was followed by a contentious debate about what Mr. Obama had previously described as the “war that we have to win.” 

In the summer of 2009, shortly after taking command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal assessed that he would require 80,000 more troops to conduct a robust counterinsurgency campaign throughout the country. With 40,000 more troops, McChrystal said he would be able to reinforce the southern areas where the Taliban are strongest.  Obama chose to add only 30,000 troops to the force, pursuing a course that left large swaths of extremist-held territory untouched by the U.S. build-up. 

In his December 2009 speech announcing the surge, Obama also declared that a withdrawal would begin in the summer of 2011, just 18 months later. That promise he kept. President Obama ordered a series of draw-downs over the next three and a half years, leading to his goal of complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.  It’s not even clear whether the 10,000 U.S. troops that are remaining before that deadline will be sufficient to secure the gains that Americans, Afghans, and the international coalition have fought for over the past 13 years.

ANSF Needs U.S. Support

Testifying before Congress last month, Army General John Campbell, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned that a protracted dispute over the outcome of the 2014 presidential election had “created a period of comparative stagnation in ANSF institutional development.”  He further warned that “ANSF performance in 2014 and early 2015 highlighted capability gaps and shortfalls that will likely persist for years.”   

Two weeks later, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the ANSF “will require continued international security sector support and funding to stave off an increasingly aggressive Taliban insurgency…Without international funding, the ANSF will probably not remain a cohesive or viable force.”

The Institute for the Study of War was even more blunt in a recent study, warning that “The [Taliban] insurgency’s resilience in the face of ANSF clearing operations suggests that the ANSF lacks the ability to clear and hold terrain decisively. The fight will protract over the long term, which is a problem at this rate of combat loss.”  Afghanistan’s military forces are dogged fighters, but they simply cannot secure victory without sustained international support.

America’s Hard-Won Gains

Despite these setbacks, there is cause for optimism if the United States remains committed to Afghanistan.  The ANSF now number at approximately 350,000 soldiers and national police, supplemented by 30,000 Afghan Local Police.  In only their second fighting season in the lead, Gen. Campbell said, “The ANSF successfully maintained control of all key terrain and populated areas in 2014. The insurgents were only able to temporarily overrun four district centers in isolated portions of the country.” 

The political prerequisites are also falling into place for an effective U.S. Afghan partnership. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Senators earlier this month that the “first thing [President Ghani] said to me when he saw me was, ‘would you please go home and tell everyone there, and especially the troops, that I know that almost 1 million Americans have come through here in the last decade to help my country, and that thousands of them have been killed and wounded, and I want you to know, thank you.’” Carter continued to say that President Ghani “is a partner in a way that we have been looking for and without whom the sacrifice that we have made over these last 10 years can't be successful.”

In part, President Ghani’s attitude reflects remarkable improvements in the quality of life of the Afghan people. In a chart submitted along with his testimony, Gen. Campbell informed the Armed Services Committee that the size of the Afghan economy has quintupled, from $4 billion in 2001 to $21 billion now. Per capita GDP was $186 in 2001, now it is more than $688.  Whereas less than one-quarter of the Afghan people had access to clean drinking water in 2001, now nearly two-thirds do.  Average life expectancy has increased by 21 years—from 43 years in 2001 to 64 years now.  The literacy rate has also more than tripled. “Much of this progress has been paid with American blood and treasure,” Campbell said.  With an increasingly capable Afghan society, government, and military Americans have much to be proud of.

Staying Committed to Afghanistan

If President Obama were to order a drawdown to 5,500 troops by the end of 2015, then U.S. forces would be required to pull back to Kabul in the midst of this year’s fighting season.  Instead, Mr. Obama should heed President Ghani’s plea to maintain U.S. forces at their present level through the end of 2016.  This will both demonstrate Obama’s commitment to our Afghan allies and allow his successor to determine the future U.S. role in Afghanistan.  

As both Carter and Campbell emphasized in their recent testimony, the Afghan people want the United States to remain, and the United States has the legal authority to do so. Indeed, Campbell went so far as to say that if the U.S. continued to draw down, then the Afghan people will likely feel “abandoned” by the United States. Although Mr. Obama may prefer to be remembered for ending two wars, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq should remind him that a war doesn’t end when one side withdraws, it ends when one side wins. 

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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