May 17, 2012

Ronald E. Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 through 2007 and is the author of “The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan.” Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and is most recently the co-author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”

Underappreciated amid all the frustrations, losses and tragedies of the United States’ longest war is some good news: Afghanistan’s army and police are improving substantially. To be sure, they still suffer from politicization at senior levels, and they have a long way to go on the battlefield. But their progress has been real. Their numbers are growing; ethnic balance is reasonably good; and they are leading some 40 percent of operations on the ground (albeit mostly the simpler ones).

Yet as NATO leaders prepare to gather in Chicago, where the war in Afghanistan will be Topic A, there is a growing presumption that, shortly after NATO finishes building up the Afghan security forces, we should start dismantling them. Allegedly because of binding budgetary constraints, a force that will soon reach its combined goal of 352,000 uniformed personnel (not counting intelligence services or community-watch organizations known as Afghan Local Police) may be quickly cut back to the suspiciously precise number of 228,500, starting around 2015.

This plan has not been formally proposed by the Afghan government nor by NATO, yet it is a presumption that’s growing among leaders in Europe and the United States about where we are headed. It would save about $2.5 billion a year, bringing the expected costs of sustaining the Afghan army and police down from $6.6 billion to $4.1 billion annually. In fairness, having a specific target such as $4.1 billion would help the United States elicit pledges from other allies for supporting the Afghan state in future years and would help the Afghans to concentrate on responsibilities they must shoulder. But it should not be viewed as a firm ceiling on what is likely to be required in the future. In fact, it is more like a floor.

The savings of $2.5 billion a year from this downsizing pales next to the roughly $100 billion annually that the United States alone has been devoting to the Afghan mission during the Obama presidency. It would be a false economy in the extreme to risk losing a war — and risk needing to keep more U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2015 on than might otherwise be required — just to reach an artificially defined goal on an arbitrary timetable for Afghanistan’s own security forces.

That goal, 228,500, came from NATO command here in Kabul. But it was one of several postures on a notional future force that was introduced a few months ago for planning purposes. It correlates with one specific threat environment — namely, the assumption of a much-weakened insurgency. Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan are down some 20 percent nationwide, according to the International Security Assistance Force here, relative to peak levels of a year or two ago — a decline led by major progress in the south and a leveling-off of violence in the country’s center, north and west. Yet, the Taliban and related groups hardly seem to be on the ropes. They remain particularly vigorous in eastern Afghanistan, where the infamous Haqqani network operates; even in the south they will surely try to mount a comeback over the next couple of years.

NATO’s exit plan for its main combat forces over the next 30 months is focused on further weakening the insurgency without any presumption that we can defeat it in that time. Even after 2014, it is only prudent to assume that the insurgency will continue, especially in certain rural areas in the south and east.

Against such a resilient enemy, an Afghan security force totaling fewer than a quarter-million soldiers and police would be quite modest. Even if aided by 10,000 to 20,000 NATO troops after 2014, as seems likely under the recently signed Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, it would be hard-pressed to hold off a dedicated Taliban. Consider:

●In Iraq, a country of similar population size, Iraqi army and police forces total 670,000.

●In Afghanistan today, combined NATO and Afghan forces exceed 400,000 troops.

●Counterinsurgency doctrine, based on experience from many previous cases, suggests that in a country of 30 million, like Afghanistan, as many as 600,000 soldiers and police officers could be required.

It is possible that a much smaller Afghan force will indeed suffice within a few years. But it is also possible that will not be the case. It makes no sense to guarantee the enemy a date certain for downsizing our ally.

NATO officials understand this, but their public messaging risks making many lawmakers and others in Europe and the United States feel that the major downsizing can already be counted upon. And many Afghans are worried about yet another sign that a war-weary NATO will not do what it takes to bring this difficult mission to a reasonably successful conclusion. If Afghans lose heart in their future, the chances of civil war and mission failure will grow.

In Chicago this weekend, while recommitting their forces to a gradual, careful withdrawal, NATO officials also need to make clear that reducing Afghan forces in the coming years is a hope — and not a binding plan.