The South Asia Channel

The Problem with Arbitrary Timelines in Afghanistan

Only days after a historic election in Afghanistan, Afghans are excited about ushering a new President and moving forward but also apprehensive of how the international community will embrace whoever replaces President Karzai in earnest.  Although the election process will undoubtedly be far from perfect, a winner will emerge to replace Mr. Karzai within months. But, one cannot ignore that in the last six months of President Karzai's term, enmity and mistrust between the U.S. and Afghan administrations have shifted expectations from an "Afghan good enough" situation -- transitioning security responsibilities to the Afghans, with all sorts of caveats, and ending the security assistance mission by 2014 -- to an "Afghan bad enough" one -- a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and attention from Afghanistan.

With no Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in place, leaving zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan has become the preferred option of many critics of the war effort, including perhaps President Obama. Some, including this author, hope that this shortsighted outcome can be averted with the election of a new Afghan president that will be concluded in the next couple of months. To be clear, however, the election on its own is not enough to offer a positive course correction. Other factors are at play, namely President Obama's insistence on arbitrary and ill-considered timelines, and on an "emerging" threat from expansionist Russia.

No doubt the relationship will shift significantly with a new Afghan President; a BSA will undoubtedly be forthcoming soon. But the "bad enough" scenario may still come to fruition if the White House retains forces in Afghanistan yet places unrealistic and damaging timelines on its military and economic support, just as it did when it announced the surge of U.S. troops back in 2009.

I remember the "Afghan good enough" phrase coming into being in the foreign policy debate. It led to President Obama's decision to supply the war in Afghanistan with an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009, but then bring the troop levels below pre-surge levels within 18 months and conclude the combat mission by December 2014. This caveat at the end of the announcement introduced uncertainty and questioned American resolve to the point of emboldening insurgents and terrorists, and allowing them to believe that they could outlast the surge.

As an aside, I must confess that, as late as October 2009, I argued against the surge while working as a Pentagon strategist. In my mind, most "counter-insurgency" (COIN) doctrine was well-intentioned but ill-conceived -- more guess than doctrine, unrealistic, hugely ambitious, and inefficient. But I did believe in the attempt to make lemonade out of lemons by one leader -- General Stan McChrystal.

In my mind, McChrystal, the new International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander and my former boss at the Joint Special Operations Command, was the only one who had a good chance of pulling the U.S. from the mess it found itself in. Being in uniform at the time, it's not as if I had much choice. With Secretary Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Secretary Clinton in Washington, D.C., and McChrystal in Kabul, however, I felt the new focus on Afghanistan had a chance of developing into a workable solution.

And yet, even McChrystal made it clear in his assessment that the key to success was not more resources but a new strategy. Success, according to McChrystal, was "achievable, but will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down' on the previous strategy. The key takeaway from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate." When McChrystal asked me to join his staff a little over a month before President Obama's speech at West Point, I went forward with the strong belief that the surge numbers mattered a lot less than the imperative to shift our entire approach to the fight in Afghanistan. But my enthusiasm and drive took a massive hit when President Obama introduced the arbitrary timeline that pulled most of the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2014.

To be fair, President Obama's December 2009 speech started off with a positive message.  He outlined the mission of the 30,000 additional troops approved to support the ISAF mission and stated that in order to meet this mission, "We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." But the President also attached an 18-month caveat to the mission and made it clear that after this timeframe, the troops would start coming home. As one of the ISAF officers in Kabul watching the President's address on TV, I had to check with a colleague that I had not misheard him.

The 18-month clock, at least partially, doomed the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan because it forced everyone to abandon any hope of condition-based "success" and focus instead on the elusive "Afghan good enough," or the best results we could hope for within an arbitrary timeline. Many fear that President Obama will introduce a similar arbitrary timeline for the "Resolute Support" force, the troops that are expected to remain to "train and assist" the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In other words, the White House may announce the anticipated decision to leave 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 NATO troops as a residual force, which will alleviate some of the fear of abandonment, but then introduce an arbitrary timeline, such as withdrawing all those forces by 2016. If that happens, I am certain that the situation in Afghanistan will continue to deteriorate.

The U.S. foreign policy makers may see such arbitrary timelines as mechanisms that encourage the completion of certain goals. But the next Afghan president and the Afghan people see them differently. Based on interviews I've had with Afghan senior officials, campaign officials, and members of civil society, I've gathered that many are uncomfortable with the enormity of inheriting the Karzai government's legacy and fear that the U.S. will abandon Afghanistan once again. They've told me that to the enemy, timelines signal the approaching end of U.S. support and support their logical conclusion that victory is inevitable.

In other words, announcing an arbitrary timeline that limits the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will deliver a psychological blow to the next Afghan president and the ANSF, boost the morale of the insurgents, and damage U.S. foreign policy credibility once again.

The world should give Afghanistan's next president and his administration a chance to lead the country to a point where it can stand on its own. The next president's goal should be to develop sustainable Afghan solutions to Afghan problems and wean the country off international donor support. But this process will take time.

At a minimum, I hope that President Obama restrains his team from applying an arbitrary timeline to U.S. support to the new Afghan administration. That doesn't mean that U.S. financial commitment is open-ended; it simply means timelines should be given a rest for now. They may be comforting to some U.S. audiences, but they have proven futile in delivering results and are dangerous in the critical time ahead.

Ioannis Koskinas is a former U.S. military officer and now focuses on economic development projects in challenging environments.  He is the CEO of the Hoplite Group and is pursuing a PhD from King's College, London.

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