In a rare moment of candor for someone so high in the military food chain, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos on Tuesday pointed directly at Iraq’s societal collapse and surge of extremist violence following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 as a cautionary tale against a similar “zero option” in Afghanistan.
“We need to be very circumspect and take a lesson from Iraq,” said Amos, the top Marine Corps officer, while speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We spent our nation’s treasure there, and then we pulled out. It is yet to be seen how Iraq is going to turn out, but I don’t want that to happen in Afghanistan.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has balked over the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, agreed to by the Obama administration and a council of Afghan elders known as the Loya Jirga. Karzai has expressed concerns over the rules that would govern the remaining U.S. troops, particularly whether they would be beholden to Afghan courts and if they could operate unilaterally.
President Barack Obama has subsequently stated that the U.S. is willing to remove all U.S. troops following the cessation of combat operations at the end of 2014, in what some believe is a high-stakes bluff to coerce Karzai into cooperation.
Amos said Tuesday no military expert can guess the outcome in Afghanistan.
“There are simply too many variables to predict,” he said, referring to the ongoing insurgency that operates in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan just across the Afghan border. Obama has said that the al-Qaida braintrust based there is “decimated” and “on the path to defeat,” amid an ongoing drone campaign.
Amos sees Pakistan and Afghanistan as a “whole set piece,” adding the U.S. can ill afford to simply pull out and go home.
Last year proved to be the most deadly yet for Iraq since the U.S. military surge in 2007, as the fledgling government fell victim to a growing Islamic insurgency that has retaken territory claimed in infamous battles, such as Fallujah and Ramadi.
Top U.S. spy James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress Tuesday morning that he does not believe Karzai will ever sign the BSA.
Some members of Congress, including Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have indicated that the U.S. might wait for Karzai’s successor to make the decision, following the Afghan presidential elections this spring.
But Amos pointed to the fallibility of the Afghan election process, which despite U.S. rhetoric to the contrary, experienced widespread fraud in 2009. Observers believe Karzai himself participated in such rigging to ensure his reelection.
There could be a runoff election, Amos offered, leading to an indefinite time frame for when a subsequent president would take office.
“Physics begins to play in here,” he said. “I think you can get everybody out [by the end of 2014] I just don’t know you can get all the equipment out.”
Roughly 75 percent of all Marine Corps equipment has already been withdrawn from Afghanistan.
“It would not be ideal,” he said.