June 16, 2011

The Drawdown Debate

Amb. Jon Huntsman is a thoughtful conservative whose opinion on the war in Afghanistan and the use of U.S. military force abroad is a throwback to the days when his was the party of restraint and, well, conservatism. But his comments do not change the fact that there is still more smoke than heat in the debate within the United States over the war in Afghanistan.

Although public frustration with the war has grown over the past two years, and despite an acceleration in public impatience with the war effort following the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the parameters of future U.S. and allied military efforts in Afghanistan are more or less set in stone: The United States and its allies will begin a transition in Afghanistan next month, as announced by President Barack Obama over a year and a half ago in a speech delivered to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The United States and its allies will complete this transition sometime in 2014, which is both when President Hamid Karzai has said he wants full Afghan sovereignty and the year up until which the NATO alliance has committed to Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine any development, absent a negotiated political settlement between the belligerents in Afghanistan, altering these parameters.

On the one hand, even the war effort's most enthusiastic supporters recognize it makes little sense for the United States to devote hundreds of billions of dollars to a landlocked, resource-poor country in Central Asia ad infinitum -- no matter how scary al Qaeda might still be. On the other hand, all but the most strident critics of the war effort understand that even it were logistically possible, a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan would be incredibly foolish, risking not just civil war but greater regional destabilization. Many of these same critics even advocate that the United States continue fighting the Taliban and other militant groups -- but with a smaller force of advisors and special operators.

Rather than picking a number of troops the United States should leave behind in Afghanistan out of thin air, we should think about what it is, exactly, we want this residual force to accomplish. Again, absent a negotiated political settlement, the government of Afghanistan will likely face a persistent if weakened insurgency for years to come. As such, the United States and its allies will want to continue direct and indirect support to the Afghan security forces -- providing not just trainers but also medical and logistical support in addition to close air support. The United States will also want to continue the fight against transnational terror networks -- always the least controversial aspect of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, anyway, for both U.S. voters and their representatives in Washington.

Working with Lt. Gen. (Ret.) David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, I determined that a force that could both continue counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and continue to teach, train, and mentor the Afghan security forces would number between 25,000 and 35,000 troops, costing approximately $25 billion to $30 billion -- about 75 percent less than what the U.S. Dept. of Defense will spend in 2011. Barno and I also estimated that NATO could be relied upon to contribute between 5,000 and 10,000 troops to serve as military and police trainers, though some countries are also likely to continue supporting U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts as well.

The conditions were not yet set, two years ago, for a shift to a less resource-intensive mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. and allied counterinsurgency campaign since 2009 has created time and space to build the Afghan security forces necessary to continue fighting the Taliban with a smaller investment of U.S. and allied manpower and other resources. These security forces are not a finished product, but they are much improved. In addition, the United States has reversed Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the U.S. and allied effort has been focused over the past 24 months, even as the security situation in eastern and northern Afghanistan has worsened.

The United States and its allies are ready to begin a transition in Afghanistan, though they will want to be cautious about too rapidly withdrawing from those areas where the insurgency remains strong. This transition will not take place overnight and will still require more resources than many Americans will be happy with, but we are in a better place to begin such a transition today than we were two years ago.