How to Keep Afghanistan Secure

How to Keep Afghanistan Secure

Washington has been repeating the same mistakes in Afghanistan for 30 years. Obama is poised to continue the cycle.


One historic weakness of U.S. foreign policy has been the excessive confidence of policy makers who believe they can foresee the future. As a result, they lock themselves into policies and fail to adjust in time, even when their underlying assumptions prove unfounded. This has been the case repeatedly over the past thirty years in Afghanistan. President Obama’s call for a reduction of the future force structure of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) poses the risk of repeating this tragic cycle.

During the 1980s, U.S. policy makers assumed that the Soviets would ultimately prevail and the Afghan resistance could only impose costs on Soviet occupation forces. It might have been a reasonable belief, but it proved wrong. And it was a costly mistake. On the assumption the Soviets were there to stay, the United States paid too little attention to the political orientation of insurgent groups fighting the Soviets. Too much support went to fundamentalist groups, too little to moderates and nationalists not hostile to the West. The United States did not take into account the implications of empowering fundamentalists in post-Soviet Afghanistan because it assumed there would not be a post-Soviet Afghanistan. Washington is still paying for this mistake.


During the 1990s, the United States assumed the negative externalities from the post-Soviet chaos in Afghanistan, such as terrorism and drug trafficking, were not critical threats to American interests. In disengaging after the Soviet withdrawal, U.S. policy makers subcontracted Afghan policy to Pakistan and calculated that regional powers would handle the costs of Afghan instability. The September 11 attacks proved otherwise.

After toppling the Taliban, the Bush administration assumed the Taliban and associated insurgent groups had been vanquished and the security environment for the new Afghan government would be relatively benign. They decided to build a modest ANSF force structure, including an army of not more than seventy thousand. When the Taliban reemerged in 2005 and 2006, the ANSF program had not built up a strong enough force to maintain security. Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as our NATO partners, were therefore forced to send more international forces to blunt the challenge from a resurgent Taliban.

The Obama administration deserves credit for expanding the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The president appeared to understand that the formula for long-term success was enabling Afghans to defend Afghanistan, with financial and other support from the United States and other friendly powers. However, in announcing the U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement, President Obama also declared plans to reduce sharply the size of the ANSF starting in 2015, from 352,000 army and police to 230,000 by 2017. The Obama administration did not condition this reduction on positive changes in the security environment. If Washington pursues this goal irrespective of conditions on the ground, it risks repeating the mistakes of the past.

No one can know what the threat level will be between 2015 and 2017, when the reductions in Afghan forces are to take place. The United States and NATO should not make the decision about future ANSF reductions now. Instead, Washington should wait until the threat picture becomes clearer. If reconciliation negotiations succeed and/or the insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan are eliminated, thereby diminishing the violence, the size of the ANSF can be reduced more safely. But the reconciliation negotiations have stalled, and there are no serious indications Pakistan is moving decisively against insurgent sanctuaries on its territory.

Especially in light of the fact that the threat from Afghanistan could remain at current levels, or even increase, it would be risky to reduce the coalition presence as planned for 2014 or cut the size of Afghan forces between 2015 and 2017. Doing so will create a security gap that the Taliban and other insurgents and terrorists, operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, could readily exploit. This policy would jeopardize all the gains we have accomplished to date.

Announcing Afghan forces will be reduced significantly in size further undermines the president’s goal of getting the Taliban to reconcile on acceptable terms. Part of the U.S. rationale behind signing a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, which commits the United States to Afghanistan’s security, was to bring the Taliban, as well as their Pakistani sponsors, to the table. By conveying that U.S. forces will remain in the region, Washington hopes the Taliban and their Pakistani allies will conclude the only sensible course of action is political reconciliation. But accompanying the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces with the downsizing of the ANSF negates this message—and instead will encourage Afghanistan’s enemies, who believe time is on their side, to wait for favorable conditions.

In a letter to President Obama, Senators Levin, McCain, Lieberman and Graham expressed concern about the administration’s plans. As they wrote,

The United States needs to ensure that decisions on the future size and funding for the ANSF will be based on security conditions in Afghanistan at that time, and not set spending levels that could not only jeopardize the progress of the past decade or weaken the security of Afghanistan when they take effect down the road but could also send the wrong message in the interim.

Some argue the United States cannot afford to support the costs of a larger Afghan force. Yet, as the president has stated, the United States has important interests at stake that can only be secured by a stable Afghanistan cooperating with Washington in the long-term struggle against terrorism. The marginal cost of a larger ANSF is small compared to the risk of under-resourcing the strategy. Such an approach would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The extent to which the planned reductions would be modified based on conditions on the ground is not clear. Administration officials have offered mixed signals. President Obama should state unambiguously that future ANSF reductions will take place only if they will not imperil U.S. national-security interests. The upcoming NATO summit in Chicago is the perfect forum for such clarification.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He has also previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as well as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and also as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: The U.S. Army