Afghanistan: Going through Withdrawal

U.S. Army patrol in Afghanistan; photo by Staff Sergeant Andrew Smith via flickrWhen Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009, he further stipulated that a withdrawal begin in July 2011 and continue until completion by 2014. As promised, the first drawdown of the 100,000-strong force is scheduled to take place next month. This withdrawal comes at a peak of anti-war sentiment. According to a CBS poll in early June, 62 percent opposed the war (an increase of 10% from last month’s poll) and 64 percent are in favor of decreasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. Opinion is mixed over whether to take out “some” or “all” U.S. troops, whether the United States is winning the war, and if the war is winnable at all, though most respondents are skeptical of the effort.

As opinion has hardened against the war, U.S. lawmakers and even mayors (for the first time since the Vietnam War) have come out in favor of a substantial military drawdown next month. In a letter circulated on June 15, 2011, 26 senators told the president that they want to see a “sizable and sustained” withdrawal that includes combat forces. Opposition in the legislature has come from the usual suspects like Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as well as Republicans such as Mike Lee (R-UT), one of the principle authors of the aforementioned letter, and Rand Paul (R-KY).

What remains to be determined is exactly how many troops, and of what variety, will go and what the pace of future withdrawal will be. President Obama and General David Petraeus recently met to discuss this significant decision. They are said to be considering a variety of possible scenarios. This decision will likely have serious consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the U.S. role in it. It may carry the possibly of changing U.S. foreign policy in general. Contemplating the different scenarios, the Obama administration struggles with key issues such as the persistence of a terrorist threat from the region, the hefty cost of the war on the national budget, and the fate of civil society and women in particular in Afghanistan.

The Proposals

Exiting Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, urges the president to exercise restraint in removing only 3-5,000 troops next month leaving combat troops to be withdrawn last. His position is built around the potential benefits of maintaining a large presence, at least in the short term, and the potentially disastrous consequences of moving out too quickly. Arguing that gains made on the ground in the past year make the possibility of a major turning point in the conflict imminent, Gates suggests that these opportunities could easily vanish should we take out too many of our men on the ground.

Gates is not alone in this thinking. General David Petraeus, though he has not made his beliefs public, likely shares them, creating a military bloc of support for minimal action. More conservative yet, Senator John McCain (R-ARZ) supports the withdrawal of no more than 3,000 soldiers.

Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon never fully supported the president’s surge in 2009. Their suggestions reflect a belief that the United States should have a lighter footprint in Afghanistan. Calling for the return of approximately 8,000 troops next month and a firm schedule for removing the remainder, Biden and Donilon support a strategy called counterinsurgency plus. According to this doctrine, the U.S. effort should be focused on small, covert attacks on key opposition leaders, the fortification of Afghan society and governance, and the training of Afghan forces to assume responsibility for the country’s security. The United States would continue to commit both combat and non-combatant forces, but on a smaller scale to be used more sparingly so as not to be spread too thin. Though this strategy has been cast aside in the past, Biden will be sure to press this critical thinking on the president. As he has said, this withdrawal “will not be a token amount.”

As one of the opposition voices in the legislature, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes that the United States should withdraw a “significant” number of troops, at least 15,000. Like Biden, he argues that combat and support troops alike should come home and that the remaining mission should focus on improving logistics and intelligence to make security more reliable and covert attacks more precise. High on the list of the senator’s priorities is training the Afghans to take control of their security needs.

The Afghanistan Study Group, which has produced perhaps the most referenced non-governmental plan, advocates the withdrawal of 30,000 troops this year and 40,000 in 2012, with combat troops as part of the total. The Study Group’s Matthew Hoh urges the government to recognize the very different results of the surges in Iraq, where there was some evidence of success, and in Afghanistan, where there has been little evidence of success. In fact, since Obama deployed more troops into Afghanistan in 2009, the situation in parts of the country has gotten worse and the prospects for negotiation have diminished as an embattled Taliban has only strengthened their resolve to continue fighting. Those U.S. troops remaining on the ground after the partial withdrawal, according to the Study Group, should be focused on establishing ceasefires, improving Afghanistan’s civil infrastructure, and encouraging greater dialogue and cooperation within Afghanistan and throughout the region.

As time winds down to the decision this week, the best guess is that the president will announce a withdrawal of 10,000 troops this year, and return approximately 20,000 more by the end of 2012. Though not quite the 15,000 troops Senator Levin considered significant and certainly not the 30,000 troops the Afghanistan Study Group recommended, this withdrawal would be more than modest. Considering the pressure Obama is facing from his military team to pull out no more than 5,000, this plan gives the troops another fighting season before the withdrawal becomes much steeper later on.

In the background of these different proposals are reports of “secret” talks between the United States and Afghanistan to maintain semi-permanent U.S. bases and operations in Afghanistan for “decades.” In talks transpiring for over a month, the two sides are hashing out a plan to assuage fears that Afghanistan will descend into chaos should the United States simply leave in 2014 and to acknowledge predictions that the insurgency will not be over by that time. Those remaining in the country from that point on would be Special Forces, intelligence operatives, and training mentors to further prepare the Afghan security forces. Bases would house these teams as well as U.S. surveillance technology and weapons. David Kilcullen of the Center for a New American Security explains that counter-insurgency operations generally require 10-15 years to complete, which suggests that the overall U.S. strategy requires continued U.S. military presence in the country for several more years.

Issues surrounding the control of the troops and the unwillingness of the United States to outfit Afghan air power, as well as concerns about how regional actors such as Pakistan, India, and China might perceive these U.S. installations, are stumbling blocks in this agreement. Coming to a settlement, should that happen, will not take place for several months. If an agreement is reached, however, it may not matter very much which withdrawal scenario President Obama ultimately chooses. As Simon Tisdall of the Guardian put it: “Behind all of the talk of withdrawals lies this dirty little secret: the Yanks aren’t going home.”

The Analysis

Recent reports that question the positive impact of American activity on Afghan security, governance, and civil society undercut the interests-based argument made by Gates and others for the cautious and limited withdrawal of troops. Though much has been done to secure the south and southeastern parts of the country, urban security in those areas is still a problem. The eastern part of the country, where the current fighting is centered, remains dangerous. A commander in the field writes back that commentaries “of ‘significant progress’ do not do justice to “blood and limbs of hundreds – HUNDREDS – of American uniformed service members each and every month…” David Kilcullen, although acknowledging military and security success in the south and southwest, argues that there has not been a single, comprehensive, workable counter insurgency strategy. The U.S. approach has not struggled merely at the military level. A report by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlights that U.S. aid programs ultimately undermine the long-term health of Afghan civil society. Unless American oversight is increased, these investments are more likely to increase corruption than stability. U.S. aid may be improving healthcare and education standards in the country, but it has not done enough for women. The war effort only contributes to the reasons why Afghanistan is the worst state in the world to be a woman.

Differentiating between the impacts of the plans put forward by Vice President Biden, Senator Carl Levin, and the Afghanistan Study Group is more difficult. All follow the premise that for combat troops to have a positive impact on Afghanistan, they must number far fewer than 100,000 and that the remaining troops focus on smaller, more covert, and more precise attacks on insurgency leaders, training the Afghans to take over security details and improving civil society and infrastructure. Though they believe the role of U.S. forces should be reduced to these duties, they clearly disagree on how many troops are required to fulfill them and how large a reduction decision-makers will realistically accept.

Another clear difference concerns future withdrawals. Although all adhere to a firm schedule, only the Afghanistan Study Group’s proposal details exactly how many troops come out at a future date (another 40,000 in 2012). At the rate ASG recommends, the United States would be down to 30,000 troops by the beginning of 2013 – fewer than half as many as are in the country today. President Obama and others’ firm insistence that withdrawals should be determined by conditions on the ground make this schedule an unlikely option for the president to follow, unless the president deems that circumstances have shifted accordingly.

Though the White House has downplayed the money question, the incredibly high cost of the war and calls for fiscal responsibility from across the political spectrum mean that finances will have to factor into these considerations to some extent. With the assassination of Osama bin Laden and reports that al-Qaeda has been severely crippled in the region, Americans frustrated with the war effort now see an opportunity to draw down the conflict and apply the savings to domestic needs.

The Take-Away

The problems Afghans are facing are very real. Aside from the dangers of the insurgency, the country still struggles with widespread poverty, inadequate infrastructure, the dismal treatment of women, and the potential of civil war encouraged by regional actors. The United States must consider how it can address these problems most effectively even as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan.

Americans must consider, for instance, whether U.S. armed forces are helping or hindering Afghanistan at this point. The evidence of the negative consequences of U.S. military presence is considerable. Counterinsurgency strategy may be able to secure certain parts of the country, but the international community is unable to translate its effectiveness throughout. The Taliban cites the presence of foreign soldiers as one of the primary calls for violence. Garrisoning troops in particular areas has made these soldiers primary targets for insurgency attacks. Since the international community can neither improve the situation through military means alone nor maintain this standoff with the Taliban forever, strategies that focus primarily on military activity should be considered with extreme caution. The United States has other means of confronting these problems, including financial and political support. But these are not silver bullets either, given the reports that suggest that U.S. investment practices are destabilizing Afghan society and encouraging corruption. If the United States can still have a positive impact through financial aid to Afghanistan, it must learn these lessons quickly.

The U.S. government and civil society has frequently expressed concerns over the welfare of women. But U.S. military activity only puts women at greater risk. As Antonella Notari of Women Change Makers says: “Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes, and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place for women.”

Afghan women complain that, though they are represented on the Afghanistan High Peace Council, they are not a part of the most important secret talks. They view dealings with the Taliban and others with apprehension. For them there is the risk that negotiating with these groups will only further entrench practices that have kept women and youth out of the political process and allow those who have wrecked their society over the past 30 years to remain in power.

Faced with horrible oppression, some are not afraid to speak up. Afghan women leaders such Rangina Hamidi of Kandahar Treasure and Wazhma Frogh Mohammad Yonus of the Afghan Women’s Network are anxious to be a part of the political dialogue and confident that their ideas can steer Afghanistan in the right direction. Hamidi works to create economic opportunities for Afghan women, believing they need a sense of authority and power in order to speak up to corruptive leaders in society. Wazhma Frogh’s life-long frustrations with gender inequalities in Afghanistan led her to a life of writing and documenting the struggles of women and empowering them through training programs. As it considers a political compromise with the Taliban, the United States must work to ensure that these women are not left out of the process.

U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are defining moments for the world and for American foreign policy. They are opportunities for a critical course correction by a superpower struggling to redefine itself. How the United States handles its exit – slowly and clumsily, steadfastly but with no sensitivity to realities on the ground, or with dispatch and yet responsibly – will speak volumes about American priorities and vision for the future. If we maintain permanent military bases in Afghanistan, despite all the evidence of the toxic effect of our troop presence, we will not have learned very much from the previous decade of war. If we fail to support women’s struggles for political and economic equality, we will not have preserved what few victories have been made over the same period. More important than the numbers or the timeline, ultimately, is the way we make our exit from Afghanistan.

Adam Cohen is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.