Year of Decision

Getty Images

On Dec. 8, the U.S. and NATO combat missions in Afghanistan officially ended, in keeping with the President Barack Obama’s May announcement that just 9,800 troops will remain in 2015 to train the Afghan National Security Forces and support counterterrorism operations. In 2016, that number is slated to fall to 5,500, and America’s presence in Afghanistan will be a “normal embassy presence in Kabul” by the time the Obama administration ends.

Though the U.S. and international forces are drawing down, the threat posed by extremist groups is ramping up. The Taliban has been executing a stepped-up campaign of high-profile attacks in recent weeks as coalition forces withdraw, including a spate of deadly attacks in Kabul and a new offensive in Helmand. What’s more, Reuters reported earlier this month that “Half the aid workers in Afghanistan received death threats or intimidation during the past year as foreign troops phased out their operations and funding began to dwindle.” The Pakistan school attack only further demonstrates the threat of Islamist extremism across South Asia.

In response to this growing threat, the Obama administration is betting on the Afghan National Security Forces. But Afghan troops have already suffered what Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has described as unsustainable casualties over the past two years, and are deficient in air power, intelligence, supply and special operations. Anderson recently told Reuters that the Afghan security forces were “inept” at tasks such as basic motor maintenance, roughly 20 percent of army positions were vacant as of October, and that the United States had “lost a whole year” of time to help correct these issues due to the protracted political wrangling over the Afghan presidential elections this year.

It’s not surprising then that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has reportedly urged U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to slow the U.S. drawdown and keep more troops in the country through 2016. Obama should consider the request of Ghani Ahmadzai, who has established himself as an eager partner to the United States since assuming the presidency in September 2014.

The collapse of Iraq’s security forces over the past summer emphasize the risks of a hasty withdrawal. As the Washington Post editorial board noted on Dec. 10, “The instability in Afghanistan, and probably the Taliban’s heightened aggression, is being driven by uncertainty about whether the United States and its allies will continue to stand behind the government and army and prevent their defeat.” Obama should consider the Post's recommendation to “make clear that he will not allow the state built since 2001 to crumble – even if that means adjusting his timetable [for withdrawal].”

There are nonetheless some reasons for optimism. At a news conference with Ghani Ahmadzai in Kabul this month, Hagel announced that the U.S. would keep 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan for a period next year than was previously planned. This is due to a delay in Europe providing forces for the post-2014 mission as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the 2014 Afghan presidential election. However, the United States cannot realistically expect Europe to provide meaningful long-term support to Afghanistan if Washington won't do so.

What’s more, the United States and Europe appear to no longer be considering a massive cut to the size of the Afghan National Security Forces from its present size of approximately 350,000 down to nearly 230,000. This move would have, as CNA reported earlier this year, “put the current U.S. policy goal for Afghanistan at risk,” because, they assess, “the security environment in Afghanistan will become more challenging after the drawdown of most international forces in 2014, and that the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015–2018 timeframe than it is now.” The Obama administration should work to persuade America’s allies to keep their pledge at the NATO summit in Wales this year to maintain “their financial commitments to support the sustainment of the ANSF, including to the end of 2017.” And, if Obama is serious, to the end of 2017 and beyond.

The issues that confront the United States in Afghanistan are indeed challenging. They are not, however, insurmountable. Obama has the opportunity now to choose a course of action that will make America and the world more secure by slowing the pace of withdrawal and demonstrating America’s commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term stability. Those who still believe in a free and secure Afghanistan should hope that Obama will seize this year of decision and demonstrate his commitment to that country’s future.

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.
Read More