May 31, 2013

Report outlines ‘something that could still resemble victory’ in Afghanistan

The United States risks “snatching defeat from the jaws of something that could still resemble victory” if it speeds up its withdrawal from Afghanistan and fails to make long-term financial and military investments in the country, according to a new report co-authored by a former U.S. military commander there.

The report, written by retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon for the Center for a New American Security, calls on Washington and Kabul to clarify as soon as possible the size of an ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw at the end of next year.

This would reduce incentives for hedging behavior in Afghanistan and Pakistan and contribute to a constructive atmosphere for the campaigns leading up to the crucial April 2014 Afghan presidential election,” they wrote.

The report disputes critics who consider the Afghan war a “lost cause,” but acknowledges that the U.S. mission has achieved only partial results and has been plagued by Afghan corruption, a fickle ally in Pakistan and a resilient enemy in the Taliban.

The United States “has wound up with a reasonable ‘Plan B’ for achieving its core objective of preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” it says. “This plan is not guaranteed to work, of course.”

Despite ongoing challenges, the report says that reasonable success can be achieved if progress continues in building a proficient Afghan military.

Allen served until last March as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, where he was credited with improving long-testy U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Since his departure, Karzai and Washington have repeatedly clashed.

Allen also began negotiations with Karzai’s government over the bilateral security agreement that will govern the planned long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan following the combat withdrawal.

Although Allen and others in the Pentagon had advocated a residual U.S. force of up to about 20,000 troops — a cause subsequently picked up by some lawmakers — many in the White House have said the number of U.S. troops should be smaller.

The administration initially hoped the agreement would be completed this spring, but negotiations have dragged on and a number of issues remain on the table, including the location of U.S. installations and a U.S. demand for immunity from Afghan law for American troops.

The report suggests that settling on and announcing the projected number of troops, contingent on later agreements on other matters, would give Afghans confidence in a lasting U.S. commitment and would allow partner nations and U.S. government agencies that depend on the troop presence for their own work in Afghanistan to begin making plans.

“We favor stating the rough contours of an American force soon,” the report says. “Clarifying the U.S. commitment would make it clear to Afghans that only their own reluctance, and specifically that of the Karzai government, stands in the way of firming up the partnership.

“Given Afghanistan’s historical fear of abandonment, we believe the psychology of such a clear American commitment of intent would be all to the good,” it says.

In the view of the authors, the force should be big enough to advise and assist the Afghan military, including “geographic distribution to cover . . . the ‘four corners’ ” of the country and “mobile teams” to assist Afghan units if necessary.

The report does not suggest specific numbers. But regardless of the ultimate size of the U.S. troop presence, it suggests that an additional several thousand personnel may be needed “to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations” and other needs.

“This might be viewed as an additional bridging force, above and beyond the Enduring Force,” it says.