The May 27 announcement of the U.S. government's plan for a complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 raises serious questions about the long-term international engagement in the country. In an effort to address some of these questions, the U.S. Institute of Peace recently published a paper that focuses on the possible ramifications of this withdrawal for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) -- on which the country's future security and stability depend.
Two years ago, following the signature of a U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), at the May 2012 Chicago summit, Afghanistan and troop-providing NATO states agreed on targets for the ANSF and committed to providing international financial support until 2024. The Chicago communiqué stated that the targeted future size of the ANSF is 228,500 members, with an estimated annual cost of $4.1 billion. Since the current force size is 352,000, it was stipulated that the pace of a gradual, managed reduction to 228,500 would be "conditions-based" and decided by the Afghan government in consultation with international partners.
It was also agreed at Chicago that the Afghan government's initial contribution to covering the country's security costs would be $500 million in 2015, and that it would take over the full financial burden for the ANSF by 2024. This implies that international funding for the ANSF would start at well over $3.6 billion per year (since the current force size exceeds the long-term level) and would remain in the range of billions of dollars annually for a number of years. For example, if the Afghan government's contribution increases by 26 percent per year (which would enable it to grow from $500 million in 2015 to $4.1 billion in 2024 as required), the international (mostly U.S.) contribution would still be as high as $2.8 billion in 2019 and close to $2.5 billion in 2020. It has also been widely recognized that foreign financial assistance will need to be accompanied by major logistical support until the ANSF become self-sufficient. Critical needs, such as air support, reconnaissance, intelligence, and medevac, are currently being filled by international forces.
In June 2013, the ANSF took over the lead security role throughout the country, and their performance has met or exceeded expectations. They have largely held their own against the Taliban insurgency, but have taken substantial casualties -- up to 400 per month -- as Taliban attacks increased. Despite concerns about the ANSFs' ability to cope over the long run, it is clear they are now fully engaged in the conflict.
The Afghan government's failure to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, which provides the legal foundation for a continuing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014, has been very costly. The BSA had been negotiated and was expected to be signed before the end of 2013, especially after a Loya Jirga (traditional assembly) endorsed the security pact and urged that it be signed quickly. Afghan President Hamid Karzai nevertheless refused to sign the BSA, and though both leading Afghan presidential candidates have said they will sign it if elected, the negative economic fallout from the delay has worsened over time. Most worrisome, the delay has coincided with, and undoubtedly contributed to, declining political support for the international engagement in Afghanistan -- both civilian (witness the U.S. Congress's halving of the USAID budget for Afghanistan in the current fiscal year) and military (the U.S. troop withdrawal announcement). Indeed, the latter appears to be close to the long-discussed "zero option," except that it will be implemented in 2016 rather than 2014.
The initial U.S. residual force size of 9,800 is in line with expectations. However, the subsequent plan -- to halve that number by the end of 2015 and to complete the drawdown by the end of 2016 (to "normal" levels of military personnel that report to the U.S. ambassador and provide embassy protection and a military assistance component) -- seems drastic and out of sync with the SPA and Chicago commitments. Moreover, the announcement is categorical, seemingly locking in this schedule with no flexibility, which would also make it very difficult (not least politically) for the next U.S. president to re-introduce American troops into Afghanistan.
This raises serious questions about how the ANSF will be supported in the future. Because the ANSF still rely extensively on logistical support and military enablers from U.S. forces, and it is doubtful that all gaps can be filled within two years, how will those roles be maintained after 2016?
Moreover, how can large international (mostly U.S.) security assistance -- billions of dollars annually until the early 2020s per the Chicago commitments -- be managed after 2016? Without an international military presence, it is not clear whether creative use of U.S. civilian government employees and numerous contractors could suffice, but such an approach would also raise its own issues.
Politically, will financial assistance to Afghanistan's security sector have much staying power if there are no residual international troops? In the constrained budget environments faced by the United States and its NATO allies, it seems highly likely that money will follow the exit of troops from Afghanistan. It is possible to envision large, sustained military aid with no foreign troop presence (such as U.S. military assistance to Israel and Egypt), but that kind of arrangement would require much more political will for long-term support to Afghanistan than has been evident recently.
The sequencing of ANSF force strength and financial support vis-a-vis possible reconciliation with the Taliban is another important issue. While a durable cessation of hostilities would permit large savings in ANSF size and costs, premature reductions (and probably the premature exit of remaining international military forces) might well make it more difficult to achieve a peace settlement. Insurgents would be tempted to wait for a more favorable situation as the ANSF shrink and international troops leave. Thus continuing robust support for the ANSF is an important part of a supportive environment for negotiations and reconciliation.
A longer-term question is whether the targeted ANSF force size of 228,500 agreed to at Chicago will remain unchanged, and if so, what will be the "glide path" to get there from the current 352,000 level? It would seem nonsensical to start reducing the size of the ANSF just as international forces are completing their drawdown, and indeed the May 27 announcement stated that the ANSF "surge strength" of 352,000 will be maintained. If and when it is decided that the size of the ANSF should be reduced, this could be accomplished by cutting new recruitment, allowing the decline to occur through attrition. At some point, the number of formations (and associated fixed costs) would also need to be cut to contain overheads. Lowering ANSF salaries would not be advisable in the short run, and resorting to low-cost conscription -- used in peacetime prior to 1978 and proposed at times by the Afghan government - would, under current wartime conditions, face widespread resistance that the government most likely would be unable to overcome.
The Afghan government's poor performance in mobilizing its own revenues in recent years gives rise to additional concerns about whether it can achieve its own ANSF funding commitment. Domestic revenue has largely stagnated since 2011 and has declined as a share of GDP, so a top priority for the new Afghan administration will be to reverse this trend and restore more rapid revenue growth. There is also a serious risk, particularly if total domestic revenue continues to grow slowly in the future, that ANSF funding will squeeze out civilian spending, damaging Afghanistan's development and stability.
Finally, it must be remembered that the ANSF -- the Afghan National Army in particular -- are largely a creation of the United States. Not only was the design of the army heavily influenced by the United States, but each increase in its size was advocated by the U.S. government -- despite warnings that it would not be fiscally sustainable and would, consequently, need long-term international financial support. It would be irresponsible to create the ANSF and then turn around and undermine them -- whether by quickly cutting their force size, sharply reducing their funding, or not providing them with essential logistical and other support.
William A. Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace; the views expressed are his own.
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