Obama Must Maintain Strong U.S. Presence in Afghanistan

Tthe United States must retain enough force in Afghanistan to allow the country to conduct a counter-terrorist campaign against remaining extremist and militant groups.

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Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative

President Obama's policies on Afghanistan since the 2009 troop surge have become increasingly disappointing—and deeply frustrating—for those who hope that that country never again becomes a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. 

First, although the president authorized a surge of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in late 2009, it was still 10,000 fewer than General Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had wanted for his campaign to reverse the Taliban's control over large swaths of the nation's countryside. Then, the Obama administration began a drawdown—in the middle of the 2011 fighting season, no less—from the surge-level peak of 100,000 soldiers and Marines to the present level of 66,000. This premature troop withdrawal placed at risk the hard-fought gains in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and curtailed America's capability to defeat the extremist groups in the country's east. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Now, ahead of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington, D.C., this week, recent news reports suggest that the Obama administration is contemplating even more troop reductions from Afghanistan. These aggressive cuts represent a rush for the exits— not a gradual, conditions-based, and responsible drawdown. If the president decides to go down this road of precipitous withdrawal, then everything that the U.S. and allied troops have fought in Afghanistan for since 2001—the effort against al Qaeda, the fight for minority and women's rights, and building a functional and democratic Afghan government—will be put at extreme risk, and may very well be for naught. 

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the Obama administration may slash the current 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by more than half over the next sixteen months. But with extremist groups still operating in eastern Afghanistan and the security gains in the country's south still tenuous, hasty U.S. troop reductions of that magnitude would dramatically curtail the coalition's ability to effectively fight the Taliban. Moreover, such a massive drawdown would fundamentally undermine efforts in the near term to train and enable truly capable Afghan security forces. While the Afghan army and police are increasingly capable and reliable, they cannot function without U.S. logistical support, and will not be able to do so for years to come. 

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Ensuring success in Afghanistan in the near term requires maintaining present levels of U.S. forces through the end of the 2014 fighting season. Early in the war, the United States did not make an effort to control Afghanistan's territory or protect its population. This allowed the Taliban to reorganize itself after their defeat in 2001, and reclaim vast swaths of the countryside. In 2009, when the security situation became truly bleak, President Obama provided enough resources for the United States to set the Taliban back on its heels at least in their former southern strongholds. The insurgents were not strategically defeated in the east, however. An irresponsible and hastened drawdown of U.S. troops before 2014 will ensure that they never will be.

Over the long term, the White House is said to favor a minimal military footprint in Afghanistan of 3,000-to-9,000 troops after 2014. These troop levels, which would reduce America's role to limited counterterrorism missions with Special Operations forces, are even lower than the minimum option for post-2014 that General John Allen, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, recommended to President Obama last week. 

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Afghanistan experts believe that much higher troop levels are needed after 2014 than are being currently contemplated by the Obama administration. The American Enterprise Institute's Fred Kagan and the Institute for the Study of War's Kim Kagan argue that even a minimal counterterrorism mission will require at least 15,000 troops to conduct and enable operations. But if the United States also hopes to continue the vital mission of training the Afghan National Security Forces, then the Institute for the Study of War's Jeffrey Dressler and Lieutenant General James M. Dubik (ret.) conclude that 24,000-to 31,000 troops are required.

After the 2014 transition to Afghanistan leading the responsibility for the country's security, the United States must retain a force sufficient to allow it to conduct a counterterrorist campaign against remaining extremist and militant groups, and to fully enable the Afghan forces to operate on their own. A follow-on force that is a tenth of what is needed is wholly insufficient, as will be any U.S. force that must suffer further politically-minded reductions over the next two years.

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