May 27, 2014

Fontaine: Afghanistan Announcement is One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Richard Fontaine

The President’s decision to retain an initial residual force in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops represents a step forward in America’s efforts to succeed in that country.  But his announcement of a rigid deadline for withdrawal of those troops may well mark two steps back.

It is clear today that the Afghan national security forces are not yet fully capable of handling the array of security challenges facing their country, and an enduring component of nearly 10,000 American troops – supplemented by diplomats, intelligence personnel and contractors – can go a long way toward helping those forces succeed.  And yet the President’s withdrawal timeline appears based on the administration’s clock, rather than conditions on the ground.

It is understandable that the administration wishes to draw down the American presence in Afghanistan.  The United States has been at war there for nearly thirteen years, the human and financial costs have been enormous, and the outcome thus far has been ambiguous at best.  The conflict has grown unpopular with the American people, with nearly 50 percent saying it was a mistake in the first place. 

At the same time, policy decisions like the one announced today must be aimed not only at those who seek the war’s end but also those – among the Taliban, on Pakistan’s side of the border, and elsewhere – that wish it to continue.  In this, the withdrawal timeline should be driven by conditions on the ground, the development of the Afghan national security forces, and an assessment by American leaders about whether and how remaining coalition forces can help ensure that Afghanistan does not return to a sanctuary for international terrorism.

A calendar-based withdrawal risks encouraging the Taliban to wait America out and Afghanistan’s neighbors to further hedge their bets.  Deciding now to reduce to zero in 2016 risks eliminating most American leverage once all troops depart, similar to what is occurring in Iraq today. 

Perhaps, over the coming months, the administration will build new flexibility into the rigid timeline outlined today.  Americans wish to see an end to the long war in Afghanistan, but the way in which that conflict concludes is of greater significance still.