By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. President Barack Obama is seriously considering the possibility of removing every U.S. soldier from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This news is significant, but hardly surprising.
After all, ever since he took office, Obama has appeared uncomfortable about long-term troop commitments. He has frequently sparred with military commanders who want more troops and time than he’s willing to provide. Obama’s reluctance was crystallized by, ironically, the troop surge of 2009. Even as he authorized the dispatch of 30,000 more troops, he ordered that they begin to withdraw just 18 months later.
Given this unease, Obama will need strong assurances that leaving a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014 would serve a necessary purpose. Increasingly, it appears this wouldn’t be the case. This suggests Obama could well choose the zero troop option. It would be the right decision.
A residual force would be intended to serve two purposes: anti-insurgent operations and training for the Afghan military. Let’s take counterinsurgency first. The 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan during the height of the surge were unable to stabilize the country. The same goes for the roughly 100,000-strong force present now. So why should we expect an even smaller post-2014 force to do any better?
True, the administration might well argue that Afghan forces would be in better shape at the end of 2014 than they were during the surge, and so better able to cope with some American assistance. And critics have also suggested a full withdrawal of U.S. troops would trigger intensified violence in Afghanistan, replicating what happened in Iraq, which was convulsed by sectarian strife after the last U.S. troop left in 2011. These arguments, however, simply overstate the capacities of a modest residual force. Greater instability could result in Afghanistan whether or not a residual force is in place.
If Afghanistan’s violence does indeed intensify, the spark would be a combination of factors: Overmatched Afghan security forces; Taliban havens in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency that the Pakistani military refuses to eliminate; and a weak, corrupt Afghan government that fails to present itself as a better alternative to the Taliban. These are factors a modest residual force would be powerless to do much about.
The other intended aim of a residual force – training Afghan troops – is also problematic. And that’s because this purpose is already being ably served by India. In 2011, New Delhi and Kabul inked a strategic agreement that authorized India’s military to increase training of Afghan security forces that had begun in 2007. Tellingly, at the very moment Washington was acknowledging the seriousness with which it’s considering the zero option, a delegation of Indian civilian and military officials was in Kabul to discuss training programs. An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman declared this week that “the training of the Afghan army in India is ongoing, this training is effective in increasing the capacities of the forces.”
Of course, given the perilous state of U.S.-Afghanistan relations, Obama may not even have the option of keeping troops in Afghanistan. The two sides have failed to conclude a security agreement that lays out the contours of a post-2014 U.S. military presence (negotiations are currently suspended). There’s a very real possibility that, as was the case with Iraq, an agreement will never be concluded. Afghan President Hamid Karzai insists he won’t resume these security negotiations until peace talks are launched between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, and yet the latter has insisted on direct talks only with the United States. On Tuesday, the Taliban abruptly closed its office in Qatar, which was expected to be used for talks. With the Taliban talks in jeopardy, prospects for a U.S.-Afghan security accord are as well.
Fortunately, if there’s no accord and no post-2014 force, then the United States will be spared the expense of deploying a modest troop force that plays an inconsequential and redundant role. And this gets to another justification for the zero option: It would save America much-needed money. Our nation remains scarred from its worst recession since the Great Depression, with unemployment at nearly 8 percent and GDP projected to rise only 2 percent this year. A recent Washington Post story on food insecurity in America notes that more than one in four kids now relies on government food aid – a record figure.
According to U.S. government budget figures, the monthly cost of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was more than $13 billion in 2011, and nearly $11 billion last year. These figures will fall considerably post-2014. However, given that each U.S. soldier costs $1 million per year, 10,000 troops would still cost a hefty $10 billion annually. These expenditures would disappear with a complete troop withdrawal, freeing up resources that could help feed American kids. Consider that Congress has spent $15 billion annually in recent years to address child hunger – yet many low-income kids still don’t receive government-provided meals.
This isn’t to say long-term military deployments are never worth financing, even during times of economic struggle at home. Yet such commitments are only justifiable when national security interests are at stake. With al Qaeda no longer enjoying a sanctuary in Afghanistan, and with the Afghan Taliban not in a position to take power in Kabul, it’s difficult to see what exactly is at stake.
Some may argue that Pakistan’s tribal belt-based militant network – which includes al Qaeda, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and other extremists that have targeted America – poses a threat to U.S. security interests, thereby justifying a post-2014 U.S. counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan that enables Washington to deploy drones in Pakistan. This would make sense if the Obama administration actually wanted to maintain a Pakistan-focused counterterror presence after 2014. In fact, it reportedly wants to downgrade this presence after next year.
If Washington does opt for a full military withdrawal, it will need to make clear that it’s not abandoning Afghanistan, as it effectively did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. It should emphasize, for example, that its development workers and diplomats will remain. To demonstrate its long-term commitment, Washington should intensify its efforts to help calm the region’s deep diplomatic tensions, which, if left to fester, could have destabilizing consequences in the years ahead.
This will certainly be no easy task. The Obama administration must salvage its troubled partnership with the mercurial Karzai, who in recent years has ordered U.S. troops out of Afghan villages and even threatened to join the Taliban. Karzai, despite what some (especially in Pakistan) are saying, remains relevant; there are now rumblings that Afghan elections may not happen until 2015 – and that Karzai, despite term limits, may try to stay in power. Washington should also leverage its somewhat improved relations with Islamabad to ease Pakistan’s concern about India’s deepening role in Afghanistan – an admittedly hard sell. Washington may not have much more luck smoothing the rocky Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. It pits a furious Karzai, who believes Pakistan is marginalizing him and embracing the Taliban, against a nervous Pakistani security establishment, which is alarmed by Karzai’s growing embrace of India.
This will be tough work. Yet it’s well worth it – and the energy expended on these diplomatic efforts would be a better investment than the money and weapons that go toward a residual troop presence of questionable utility.