Leaving in 2014

Originally published in Foreign Policy Magazine
March 5, 2013

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Robert Wolfe, a security force platoon leader for Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah, provides rooftop security during a key leader engagement in Farah City, February 25, 2013 (U.S. Navy)

President Obama is about to make the worst mistake of the Afghan war, it seems. He appears ready to announce that the United States will keep fewer than 10,000 troops in the country after 2014, a decision tantamount to abandoning Afghanistan and America's interests in South Asia.

The president and his advisors seem to have persuaded themselves that the situation in Afghanistan is fundamentally benign (which is odd, since most Americans think that the situation is hopeless). White House sources claim that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are strong enough to maintain security on their own. Some point optimistically to the fact that Soviet puppet Mohammad Najibullah survived for three years after the 1988 Soviet withdrawal.

This argument shows deep ignorance of Afghanistan. Najibullah's reign ended with his body hanging from a crane in the center of Kabul. That image remains a vivid icon of failure and personal catastrophe in Afghan memory. It was followed by a horrific civil war that made Afghanistan an ideal sanctuary for Osama bin Laden. There was no "decent interval," and the results were disastrous for America.

Hamid Karzai's military is nowhere near as well-equipped as Najibullah's, moreover. The Soviets left a large and well-organized force with tanks, helicopter gunships, and attack aircraft (none of which the ANSF has). Reflecting on the fate of that military and government should make anyone serious about the future stability of Afghanistan shiver. It brings fear to current Afghan elites. The Soviet withdrawal doomed the Najibullah government. A U.S. withdrawal will doom the current one.

Some argue that the presence or absence of American troops makes no difference in Afghanistan, believing that the enterprise was hopeless to begin with. This argument is incorrect. U.S. and allied troops have been enormously important in helping to clear enemy safe havens and expanding the capabilities of the ANSF. Afghanistan will deteriorate when American forces are either minimal or absent. Worse yet, American and allied forces in Afghanistan today are essential to preventing all-out civil war and to making counterterrorism operations possible.

Counterterrorism operations in South Asia require bases in strategically critical locations such as Khost and Jalalabad, which a 10,000-soldier force-cap would preclude. Afghanistan's land-locked geography and impassible terrain make it impossible to replace boots on the ground with offshore assets. Unlike Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, or Iraq Eastern Afghanistan is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Khost is 28 miles from the principal terrorist sanctuary in Miramshah; Kabul is 138 miles and a 12,000-foot mountain range away. Proximity is essential for effective targeting, as well as for acquiring the information needed to know what to target and when. Designing a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan that surrenders these bases is simply insane.

Nor will the United States be able to rely exclusively on the ANSF to protect its remaining bases, since the Afghan forces are not adequately trained, equipped, or capable of surviving on their own, let alone defending American troops. The ANSF was built, largely in the last three years, to get foot-soldiers into the fight as quickly as possible while the United States and NATO provided air support, intelligence and communications support, and logistics. Efforts are underway to build a support structure for the ANSF, but not to replace the high-end enablers that the United States routinely gives close allies such as France and Britain. The ANSF is unlikely to survive in combat without them. It was never expected to try.

Announcing a minimal post-2014 military presence will make any sensible counterterrorism strategy impossible. It would repeat the mistake made after the Soviet withdrawal of imagining that Afghanistan no longer mattered to American security. It would also repeat mistakes made in 2002 of believing that Afghanistan would naturally drift in the right direction even without serious attention. The decision to abandon Afghanistan again would be by far the worst mistake of this war.