TALKS BETWEEN the Obama administration and the Afghan government over a U.S. military presence after 2014 have gotten off to a poor start. In Washington, officials have been briefing journalists about minimalist options for counterterrorism forces and trainers after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops is completed. The figure of 10,000 troops recently reported by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times is about one-third the number that defense analysts Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, who have advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for years, said would be necessary for a stay-on force in a recent Post op-ed.
The government of President Hamid Karzai, for its part, is making its own troubling noises. Mr. Karzai has been suggesting that he will refuse to grant U.S. troops immunity from the Afghan courts after 2014 — crossing what he knows is a Pentagon red line. Some of his top advisers are questioning whether any Western soldiers should remain in the country. “If the 150,000 foreign troops haven’t been successful here so far, how could the 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 that would stay inside their bases after 2014 achieve any success?” his chief of staff recently asked a Wall Street Journal reporter.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: This is how negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iraqi government unfolded during the 2011 troop withdrawal there. U.S. officials said they wanted an agreement, while steadily scaling down the proposed size of the force; Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, perceiving ambivalence, declined to make the political effort needed to win agreement from parliament on a bilateral accord including an immunity provision.
In the end no U.S. forces remained in Iraq, with consequences that are still playing out: the de facto separation of Iraq into sectarian pieces and increasing reliance by Mr. Maliki on Iran. Iraq has intermittently allowed Iran to use its airspace to supply weapons and trainers to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. While a U.S. stay-on force could not have prevented all of these developments, it could have helped defuse some flash points, such as the growing tensions between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces.
In Afghanistan, the results of a full U.S. withdrawal would certainly be worse. To start with, it would be virtually impossible to continue drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal territories or Afghanistan itself, since there would be no U.S. bases within the drones’ range. Mr. Karzai’s bravado aside, the withdrawal of all American forces would embolden the Taliban and likely lead to the crumbling of the Afghan army and a new civil war. As it has in Syria, that would create new room for al-Qaeda.
According to the strategic partnership agreement that Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai signed in May, the two countries have until next October to agree on a post-2014 military arrangement. But a much earlier deal is needed in order to plan and carry out the withdrawal of the 66,000 U.S. troops currently in the country. To get there, an infusion of political courage is needed on both sides.