Policy Change for US in Afghanistan Drawdown Should Not Be Very Surprising

November 24, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Friday, the New York Times reported a change in the Afghanistan policy discretely expressed by President Obama.  The president has authorized “American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions,” the Times reported.  This is significant because in the president’s specifically outlined drawdown policy and timeline, American forces would not be operating in a combat role, but rather, an advisory one.

The decision to “broaden” the mission in Afghanistan after announcing the drawdown surprised and shocked many.  However, this policy should have come as no surprise under the guise of the president’s current counterterrorism policy.  The US continues to work with governments such as Somalia, Yemen, and to some degree, Pakistan in terms of offensive and lethal counterterrorism operations.  The president has maintained a covert drone program in which the strikes have taken thousands of lives, including those of civilians.  It would be foolish to think that the president would simply forfeit operational control of this calculated counterterror policy to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who still require pilot and ground training, especially with reports of the Taliban going back on the offensive and poised to take back certain areas of Afghanistan.

Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is thought to be a willing and obedient partner of the United States.  This partnership will benefit the US most in counterterror cooperation.  As Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated in October regarding the drawdown, “We need those [Afghan] bases in order to go after Al-Qaeda and protect our own security against people who want to kill us, so we sometimes have a chance on a way to kill them first…They [Afghanistan] don’t have the drones. They don’t have the commandos to go after a Zawahiri target that may pop up in the federally administered tribal areas, for example. So, I think we need the bases in Afghanistan…Leave aside what Afghanistan may require.”

The Times noted that the debate to broaden the Afghanistan mission was related to the rapid deterioration of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) last summer when attacked by Islamic extremist militants.  Officials at the time of the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq believed the Iraqis had a firm grip on their security.  President Obama also did not enjoy a friendly relationship with then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  Despite the fact a status of forces agreement was not agreed to in Iraq, and putting aside the debate regarding its feasibility, President Obama with his shift in Afghanistan policy does not want to be on the hook for similar security lapses the likes of which occurred in Iraq.

Leading up to the drawdown of American troops in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State’s predecessor) was severely degraded, though not defeated.  Former US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, “the need for U.S. troops was not self-evident in 2011. Iraq appeared stable, with oil exports of two million barrels a day at about $90 a barrel, and security much improved.”  The combination of these realities led the Obama administration to believe they did not need a counterterrorism cooperation relationship with Iraq vis a vis Yemen or Somalia.

What’s more, considering Pakistan’s unwillingness to pursue certain terrorist groups within their border (“the good Taliban”), the US is sure to want to maintain a heavy hand in regional operations against potential threats.  Such unwillingness has created tensions between Pakistan, their immediate neighbor Afghanistan, and the United States.  Despite Pakistan’s recent military campaign into their tribal regions where terrorist groups are known to enjoy safe havens, the Pakistani government has been accused of not going after all groups.  The Afghan government has grown concerned as these groups are able to wage cross-border attacks.  According to a report released by the International Crisis Group, “Even if Afghanistan were to respond to Pakistani requests to take action against sanctuaries used by Pakistani militants and to hand over Mullah Fazlullah [Pakistani Taliban leader], relations will remain tense so long as Pakistan does not end safe havens for the Afghan insurgents.”  The report continued to say the United States has threatened to withhold aid dollars if Pakistan continues to allow certain groups to go unchallenged.  In the words of a US official, “We keep telling [Pakistan] they must go after all the terrorists and that they cannot cherry-pick.”

Given the incursions of the Taliban, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State, and Pakistan’s unwillingness to hit all terrorist groups that pose a threat to the region and abroad potentially, the United States will surely look to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship within Afghanistan’s borders.  In addition, President Obama’s counterterrorism history should provide an example of why the decision to broaden the mission in Afghanistan should not come as a surprise.  The “small military footprint” model the president set to establish will now include Afghanistan post-combat.