The South Asia Channel

Obama's Limited Strategy Risks Total Afghan Defeat

The Obama administration's newly released rigid policy towards Afghanistan risks losing the "war that has to be won"  as President Obama termed it. The president correctly noted the tremendous progress Afghanistan has made since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 as evidenced by the recent peaceful elections, measurable improvement in the access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity now enjoyed by many Afghans, especially women and children, and the emergence of capable national security forces.  But the path outlined for American commitment through the end of his second term jeopardizes those hard-earned gains. 

While specific troop numbers may be great for political talking points and sound bites for press secretaries, in planning the future role of the United States in Afghanistan this figure must be based on clearly defined objectives and the appropriate force size and structure that can accomplish them.  Just as the timeline for continued American presence in Afghanistan should be dictated by conditions on the ground, so should the amount and type of forces.  To Afghans, 9,800 is as arbitrary a figure as 2016 (especially considering that Afghans observe both the Islamic lunar and Persian solar calendars).  What matters to Afghans is the enduring commitment of the United States (as legally bound by the Strategic Partnership Agreement) to "strengthen security and stability in Afghanistan, contribute to regional and international peace and stability, combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity."  By placing limits on both the number of troops and their withdrawal date, the administration unnecessarily constrains itself and the Pentagon to properly deploy forces to successfully accomplish the mission.  In doing so, they also send a signal to the Afghan people and the next Afghan president that America's commitment is limited and quantifiable, which emboldens the Taliban by giving credence to their claim, "you may have the watches, but we have the time."  It also gives advance notice to Afghanistan's neighbors seeking to further their own interests and influence in the region, many of which directly contradict American interests. 

That is not to suggest that the United States needs to maintain tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan to succeed.  Indeed, neither of "two narrow missions after 2014:  training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda," as laid out by the administration, necessarily require great numbers of troops.  By December 2004, after routing the Taliban with assistance from the United States, optimism swirled around the country as Afghans wrote and ratified a constitution, elected a President, nearly doubled GDP, and established an army and police force totaling 57,000 -- all with less than 17,000 American soldiers in country.  While 9,800 troops is close to levels requested by the Pentagon, the aforementioned costs of publicly announcing hard numbers and deadlines far outweigh any domestic political gains.  Even if a strategic or operational reasoning exists behind the troop levels ultimately chosen, some decisions are best played close to the chest. 

A common argument among pundits, politicians, and policy wonks alike, supposes that the Afghans need a deadline to motivate them to take charge of the security situation.  I suspect that the large majority of those having actually worked alongside members of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) would agree that this is a complete fallacy.  In my own experience fighting alongside Afghans, most of them -- particularly those who have chosen to wear the uniform and defend their country --are eager to take over the lead for security.  Admittedly, this applies much more so to the army than the police, who lag far behind in professionalism, training, and capability.  The ranks of the army are filled with proud warriors who simply lack the experience in planning and executing many of the administrative and logistical functions that are required of a modern military. In just the last few years they have finally begun to receive the necessary professional military education and training needed to improve. 

To alter this unfortunate reality will require years beyond 2016 of continued investment; not in blood and treasure, but rather in chalk, mentorship, and patience.  The administration's policy has rightly chartered a course away from combat operations, which will cease by the end of this year.  As the President pointed out last Tuesday, providing security is firmly the mission of the Afghans themselves.  However, the Afghans will continue to need support not only from the United States, but from the entire international community through programs like the Ministry of Defense Advisers and the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program that have finally received the necessary resources, focus, and support to equip American civilians and service members alike with the skill set to help leaders in the Ministry of Defense and the ANSF, all the while forging enduring relationships between the current and next generation of Afghan and American leaders.  Furthermore, as expressed during the May 2012 Chicago NATO Summit, the expected annual responsibility to fund the ANSF, "will increase progressively from at least $500 million in 2015, with the aim that it can assume, no later than 2024, full financial responsibility for its own security forces," which the attendees of the summit initially envisaged as "a force of 228,500 with an estimated annual budget of $4.1 billion."  Without an adequate number of advisers to provide oversight for the spending of international funds corruption and waste already rampant in the ANSF will assuredly continue. 

To completely withdraw by the end of 2016 would jeopardize the fragile gains made and investments in learning Afghan culture and languages, and applying those hard earned skills to foster relationships that facilitate effective development of ANSF capabilities.  A "normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we've done in Iraq," as envisioned by the President will likely have the same results as it did in Iraq: The black flag of al Qaeda will return to Kandahar, just as it did in Fallujah.  The Obama administration's strategy to transition the lead of combat missions from the United States and the international community to the ANSF, focusing instead on training and assistance while maintaining the ability to conduct counterterror operations against the remnants of al Qaeda and its affiliates certainly puts the United States on the path to bring about a successful end to a 21st century war.  Constraining that strategy with unnecessary self-imposed deadlines and hard caps on troop levels, regardless of conditions on the ground, risks committing the same mistakes of the past that the President warned us about years ago.

Michael McBride is a former Ranger and Army Infantry Officer who deployed three times to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  He is a graduate of Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and works as a consultant for the Department of Defense.

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