By Adela Raz -
Intense discussions are taking place in Washington about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Leaked reports indicate the White House is considering keeping as few as 2,500 troops after 2014. And on Tuesday, Ben Rhodes, US Deputy National Security Advisor said a complete withdrawal is also an option.
Although an announcement on residual troop numbers is not expected during Karzai’s visit, initial discussions and recommendations by senior U.S. military officials centered on keeping 25,000 to 30,000 troops through 2015 to perform non-combat duties. A dramatic drawdown can undermine efforts by soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and what has been achieved to date. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has made notable progress in quality and size in the past three years, but they still remain reliant on coalition forces for support roles, primarily logistics and air power. According to a recent Pentagon study, only one of 23 Afghan brigades can operate indpendently.
The Obama administration seems frustrated with the Afghan government. The immunity issue — protection for U.S. soldiers from prosecution under the Afghan law — is one of the numerous controversial topics of discussion between the two sides. Similarly, the recurrence of green-on-blue attacks, and the rising costs of the Afghan mission have contributed to the mindset that calls for zero U.S. troops option. However, it is essential to remember the initial reason for which the U.S. went into Afghanistan, to fight terrorism and help Afghanistan overcome the challenge of being a safe haven for terrorist activities.
Rising extremism in Pakistan and the increasing challenges of the Pakistani government to fight them – combined with the limited ability of the ANSF to defeat terrorism remain real threats to the U.S. as well as to regional security. Pakistan’s first ever acknowledgment of “home grown militancy” as a major national security issue indicates the seriousness of the threat. Osama bin Laden is dead, with the help of U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan from where Navy Seal’s helicopters flew into Pakistan, but Al Qaeda remnants and its affiliates still operate in the region. In the absence of a capable combat force, Al Qaeda remnants can easily expand – as they continue to do so.
The zero-troops option will also undermine the political track and future potential for peace talks with the Taliban. Negotiators will lose their bargaining power with the Taliban. The Taliban will have no incentive to come to the negotiation table and make a deal with the Afghan government.
Presently, the White House has the option either to protect what the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government have achieved thus far, or take the risk and deal with the consequences of an uncertain and dangerous future that could result in the return of emboldened and victorious radical and terrorist forces to Afghanistan.
Adela Raz is a Project Coordinator at an international development organization based in DC.