Many factors, both domestic and international, must have shaped the President’s decision to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer. Realities in Afghanistan suggest that his course of action involves excessive risks.
President Obama asserted that “the tide of war is receding” and that troop reductions were taking place from “a position of strength.” It is true that security has improved in southern Afghanistan. In Helmand and Kandahar, civilians are more confident about their safety and therefore more willing to cooperate with NATO and Afghan forces and against the enemy. However, NATO statistics indicate that violence overall is up by 30 percent in Afghanistan in 2011. Violence has shifted to Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, where U.S. military leaders hoped to concentrate their efforts in 2012. This next stage in the counterinsurgency campaign may be imperiled at lower troop levels, especially if the 23,000 troops expected to be withdrawn in 2012 leave before the end of the fighting season.
The main risk posed by the drawdown is that NATO and Afghan forces will not have adequate numbers to fill contested spaces. At pre-drawdown numbers, NATO and Afghanistan have sufficient forces to advance a population-security counterinsurgency campaign while simultaneously handling enemy pressure in multiple locations. These forces are stressed but can cope with the current challenge. The risk is that, after the drawdown, our forces will be stretched too thin and may have to concede the initiative or retrench is some areas in order to defend others. The threat is particularly acute if enemy activity escalates. The president’s policy is significantly narrowing our margin of safety.
President Obama said that increases in the size of Afghan security forces made this drawdown feasible. It is true that more than 100,000 soldiers and police have been added to the rolls. However, many of the new units are still immature, and these forces continue to be ill equipped. Senior Afghan officials comment that the United States provided better firepower to Afghan resistance fighters opposing the Soviet occupation in the 1980s than it is giving to the Afghan National Army today. The ANA currently lacks adequate air transport, armor and protected mobility. For example, of the ten transport aircraft only two are available at any one time. Plans are in place to remedy some of these deficiencies, but if there are delays in implementation—as is often the case—there will be a significant increase in risk.
President Obama said that military progress would enable a political settlement to the conflict. Yet, if the United States and Afghanistan do not have a credible path to success absent a settlement, it is unlikely that the enemy will strike a deal unless the agreement effectively increases the prospects for an insurgent victory down the line. The key interlocutor for a deal is not the Taliban, but Pakistan. Taliban leaders, who live with their families in Pakistan, do not have freedom of action. The president did not explain how the United States plans to induce Pakistan to shift from supporting the Taliban and other insurgents to facilitating a peace settlement.
In proclaiming that “it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” President Obama expressed a clear desire to reduce our commitment. This is understandable in terms of our domestic and economic circumstances. The danger is that pressures at home will lead the administration to accept excessive risks with regards to the war effort but sell it both here and abroad with inflated expectations.
The Obama administration hopes that the relative success of the surge in Iraq will be repeated in Afghanistan. But there are several key differences between the two situations. In Iraq, the surge took place after the Anbar Awakening had already led to reconciliation with many in the opposition, including some insurgent forces. This process continued during the surge. Such reintegration has yet to happen in Afghanistan. In Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki became more comfortable with the decisive use of force, even against Shia militias, than he had been earlier and urged the Coalition to apply force ruthlessly whenever challenged. President Karzai wants less force to be used and has had serious reservations about the strategy even though it has produced positive results in the south. In Iraq, there was no equivalent to the strategic problem of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Probably most important is the fact that Iraqi forces at the time of the surge numbered close to 1 million. In Afghanistan by contrast, there are now 160,000 soldiers in the ANA while the Afghan National Police has reached 126,000. Yet they must defend a bigger country with a population similar in numbers but scattered more diffusely.
President Obama deserves much praise for his actions in Afghanistan to date. His administration has been explicit about the gravity of the threat from the region. He selected extraordinarily able military commanders. He approved a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign and sent about 60,000 additional U.S. troops to carry it out. In tandem, the administration stepped up programs to bolster Afghanistan's national security forces.
Yet there are key missing pieces in his strategy.
First, the Obama administration has failed to develop an effective working relationship with President Karzai or to catalyze political progress among Afghan leaders and factions. The fault lies on both sides. Yet the United States should make every effort to use the deployment of a new civil-military team to Kabul as an opportunity to rebuild trust. It is critical that the United States work collaboratively with Karzai on improving governance. At the same time, Washington should be more proactive in helping Afghans resolve internal conflicts, such as disputes over the seating of parliamentary members whose elections were contested. Similarly, America needs to focus on helping Afghans hold credible elections in choosing their next president. We must avoid the errors of the last election.
Second, the United States needs to clarify its intentions for the long term. To operate against the terrorist threat in the region, Washington needs a strategic partnership with Kabul, including an enduring military presence. Afghans needs a U.S. commitment even more. The Obama administration has initiated talks to achieve a strategic partnership, and has rightly used them to press from improvements in governance. But they need to articulate a broader vision.
Third, the White House must adjust its approach to Pakistan. Islamabad has been behaving as both friend and adversary. Our inability to deal effectively with Pakistan is one of the key factors in the crisis of confidence between the United States and the Karzai government. Karzai wants either more pressure—including attacks on Taliban, Haqqani network and other extremist targets across the border into Pakistan—or a negotiated settlement with Islamabad. He does not want to continue the fight against Pakistani proxy forces in Afghanistan and has grown disillusioned with the U.S. approach. As the Obama administration has been considering a drawdown in recent weeks, Pakistan has been actively encouraging Karzai to turn against the United States. At the same time, more Pakistanis have crossed the border to join the Taliban and other insurgents fighting the Americans. We should escalate both pressure and engagement with Islamabad to achieve a constructive Pakistani policy on extremism, terrorism, and Afghanistan. Through our assistance programs and role at the IMF, the United States has enormous leverage with Pakistan, whose economy is foundering.
Addressing these issues will substantially improve our prospects in Afghanistan and in the region. Without such a change, the recent decision is likely to increase the risks in Afghanistan and in the broader struggle against extremism and terror.