WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama announced in his State of Union address in February that 34,000 American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by this time next year, and 33,000 have already left.
This year, nearly all the fighting will be led by the Afghan security forces; U.S. forces will mostly assist in training and counterterrorism efforts.
“This drawdown will continue, and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” Obama said. The administration has not specified how many U.S. forces, if any, will remain in the country after 2014.
“A lot of discussions are looming,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a discussion held by the McCain Institute in Washington, D.C., in association with Arizona State University on Feb. 28. Named after McCain’s family, the nonpartisan McCain Institute calls itself a “decision tank” in contrast to one of Washington’s many “think tanks.”
McCain said that some of his Senate colleagues have traveled to Afghanistan three or four times a year since 2001, and have mixed impressions about the direction of the country under President Hamid Karzai.
The institute’s executive director, Kurt Volker, noted in his introduction that Afghanistan has seen “remarkable progress” in education, health care, women’s rights, children’s issues, governance, and economical development.
Many questions remain, however, said McCain. It is uncertain what role the United States should continue to play. It is also uncertain whether Afghan security forces are ready to defend the country against the Taliban and other insurgents.
The McCain Institute invited four foreign-policy experts to weigh in on the uncertainties ahead.
Frederick Kagan: Too Soon to Leave
Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, wants to reverse the course the administration is now on and keep American forces in Afghanistan. He said that, while there is currently no significant al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, it would nonetheless be premature to leave now.
“We are working our way out of a job in Afghanistan, but the Afghan security forces are not yet there,” Kagan said.
Kagan is certain that if American forces pull out now, al-Qaeda will return, and then there will be little the United States could do from offshore.
In 2009, Kagan served in Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment team. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, he returned to Afghanistan to conduct research for Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen.
Kenneth Roth: Hold Afghan Government Accountable
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, agrees with Kagan that the United States needs to remain engaged in Afghanistan, but wants to change the emphasis of American aid. He doesn’t take any position on the number of troops the United States should retain in the country.
“Afghanistan has been seen too much as a military matter,” Roth said. “That has been utterly counterproductive.” American foreign policy on Afghanistan, he contends, should have a more political focus.
Roth sees a massively corrupt Afghan government that is repressive, making “no serious efforts to hold [Afghan] troops accountable.” He said the lack of accountability of the warlords and the Afghan forces creates an environment ripe for Taliban recruitment and a Taliban return to power.
Afghanistan has seen some progress, said Roth: A vibrant press has flourished, and conditions for women are “dramatically better today than under the Taliban.”
He fears this progress could easily be reversed.
“What is needed is serious, sustained pressure on the government, on Karzai, and whomever comes after him to live up to the basic elements of a democratic society,” Roth said, again emphasizing the need for a political, not only military focus.
Seth Jones: Reduce American Military Footprint
Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp., would decrease the American military footprint, part of which would involve withdrawing ground troops.
But, he said, the United States will still have a national security interest in countering al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups—the Taliban and Haqqani Network—operating in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has safe havens in Pakistan and the border with Afghanistan is “extremely porous,” Jones said.
Compared to 2001, American support for the war has gone down “precipitously,” he said, and Afghan public support has definitely declined.
Sending in more ground troops to a foreign country such as Afghanistan is not necessarily effective, Jones said.
“Whatever we do in Afghanistan, when there is an insurgency that has a command and control mode across the border in Pakistan—that is, the Taliban Inner Shura [a council of Taliban leaders]—as long as it continues to exist in places like Baluchistan and Karachi, the odds of winning in Afghanistan are terribly low,” Jones said.
Based on counterinsurgency efforts the United States is operating in the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia, Jones thinks that a contingency force of 6,000 to 8,000 for counterterrorism and to assist Afghan security in counterinsurgency would suffice.
Jones has served in various high-level positions in the U.S. Special Operations Forces, including plans officer and adviser to the commanding general of the U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.
Steve Clemons: Afghanistan Draining US Resources
Steve Clemons, editor for The Atlantic and former director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, sees large-scale deployments in Afghanistan as a waste of money.
He said, financially, the investment in the country does not match the country’s worth.
The United States has spent about $120 billion annually in Afghanistan; this in a country with a gross domestic product (GDP) of just over $14 billion, said Clemons. The World Bank’s newest data puts Afghanistan’s GDP at $19 billion; other sources, including think tank Oxford Research Group also estimate U.S. spending in Afghanistan at about $120 billion annually.
Clemons said that the decision to deploy forces in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack was the right decision back then, but it has become a “suck for American power.”
He no longer sees American involvement in Afghanistan as necessary for national security.
The United States has become “tied down and overstretched, and unable to do things elsewhere,” Clemons said. He would only retain a modest troop presence to prevent a coup or the overthrow of the Kabul government.
Clemons expressed himself clearly in an article for Politico in September 2010: “The Afghanistan conflict has now grown disproportionally large in the global portfolio of U.S. national security concerns, outweighing and tilting attention and resources away from other troubles in the Middle East, from Iran, from North Korea, from the global consequences of an ascending and more powerful China.”
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