The most important development in Afghanistan yesterday was not President Obama’s speech but the accord for ongoing co-operation between the United States and Afghanistan. In a briefing on the terms of the deal, the administration outlined several components: “That strategy has five elements: Transitioning to an Afghan lead by 2014; training Afghan security forces so that they can provide for the security of Afghanistan, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, pursuing reconciliation within Afghanistan, and promoting regional stability.”
But of course none of that is possible if the security situation deteriorates with the departure of U.S. troops. In the briefing there was this revealing interchange:
Q: Hi. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about the long-term troop presence. Is there any discussion between President Obama and President Karzai today on how many troops you’ve outlined, what those missions would be? Do we have any greater clarity of what the post-2014 troop strength will be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, thanks for the question. It was a very good bilat that the Presidents had. They did not discuss numbers of troops. As you understand, I think the agreement itself allows for a troop presence after 2014, as was agreed in the Lisbon summit by the ISAF countries and by NATO, obviously. But it does not commit it to any particular level.
The bottom line is that that kind of decision will be made on a national basis, and as I said, in consultation with ISAF and the Afghan country. But the purpose of that goes back to our core goal, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al Qaeda, and to deny them safe haven in Afghanistan. So any decisions about post-2014 presence will be guided by that fact and by our efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces to ensure that this does not become a safe haven again for al Qaeda.
Q: Thanks very much. You guys have lots of positive language about responsibility, social development, enduring partnerships, ending the war. But in strict military terms, the U.S. is withdrawing while the Taliban think they’re winning the war, and the Afghans are reorganizing their politics in expectation of a Taliban greater power. So, frankly, are you simply spiking the ball and walking away from the fight with the Taliban?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The short answer to your question is no. The longer answer to your question is that every indication is that the Taliban as well as other actors in the region recognize that a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Afghan government and the United States, as well as the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the Afghans have signed now with five or six other countries are indications that they — nefarious actors cannot wait out the international community; that the Afghans will continue to have partnerships across the international community, including with the United States. And we’ll continue to make sure that we are providing them the resources, for example, to train and equip the very capable Afghan National Security Forces who have performed exceedingly well in light of a series of very significant challenges over the course of the last several months.
So we’re very realistic about the challenges that we face here. The Presidents were very realistic about the challenges we face when they had the discussion in their bilateral meeting today. But the bottom line is this agreement, like the memoranda of understanding that has been signed over the course of the last two months, are indications that we have the pieces in place to successfully execute on our core national security prerogative in Afghanistan, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al Qaeda and to ensure that it can never come back here to a safe haven.
Q: Hi, there. Thank you all for doing the call. Two questions. If we could go back to the troops, again, who could potentially remain beyond 2014, is there a way to say, definitively, whether or not this might include combat forces? And then secondly, can you talk a little bit about how much the recent incidents — the burning of the Korans and the killing spree that left a number of Afghans dead — how much did those incidents complicate the efforts to finalize the Strategic Partnership Agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, just on your second question, I think the clear point is that they did not complicate that progress. In fact, we were able to negotiate very complex issues like the transfer of detention facilities to the Afghans and the transition of special forces operations to the Afghans in the context of those very difficult and tragic circumstances, and then close out the Strategic Partnership Agreement. . . .
On your first question, I think what’s clear is we are going to be dramatically reducing the number of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan as we move forward with our transition to 2014. We’ll be down to 68,000 by the end of the summer. There will be steady reductions after that. Our missions will change as we move into a support role and the Afghans are in the lead next year. And then of course, the Afghans will be fully responsible for security.
If we do have any presence here after 2014, it would be on Afghan facilities. We will not be building any permanent bases in this country. We will not be patrolling Afghanistan cities and mountains. That will be Afghan security forces who will carry out those functions.
The only missions that we are contemplating and discussing with the Afghans involves counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda, which we would need to carry out to ensure that al Qaeda cannot reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan, and then continued training of Afghan forces. But again, these would be dramatically reduced number of U.S. troops focused on a very narrow set of missions that would be entirely different from the type of combat that we’ve been engaged in over the course of the last decade. This would be counterterrorism and training of Afghan security forces who will have the responsibility for carrying out combat operations.
This, to put it mildly, is a bit disingenuous and/or unrealistic. If U.S. troops are going to be restricted to Afghan facilities, there is really not much they can be expected to accomplish. Like the pre-surge strategy in Iraq, keeping troops hunkered down on bases makes them a target, not effective anti-terrorist forces. The briefer plainly said that al-Qaeda — not the Taliban and not any of the half-dozen other terrorist networks — would be our only concern.
Conservative foreign policy expert Michael Rubin (no relation) sees this formula, coupled with our frantic efforts at “negotiations” with the Taliban this way: “[T]he combination of a timeline and outreach to the Taliban is a noxious mix that destines any American strategy to defeat. Until and unless the commander-in-chief is willing to sign on to a strategy to defeat the Taliban completely rather than co-opt and flee, he is simply spiking the football at halftime, before forfeiting the game.”
The international community is not blind. It can see that we are not fulfilling our stated goals and that, in fact, the chances of Afghanistan becoming a failed state and haven for terrorists are increased by this game plan.
A foreign policy expert who has been critical of the administration’s strategy told me after the speech: “[President Obama] was appropriately dignified and thankfully more about the troops than him. My worry was the part about negotiating with the Taliban, who don’t show many signs I can see of wanting peace or to concede anything. And of course the proof of the partnership depends on how much US force remains and how much they do.” According to the administration, they’ll not be doing all that much.
Another administration critic likened this to the “Vietnamization” strategy that provided cover for the United States to exit from the Vietnam war: “Who cares whether we win, just get us out.” That’s the most succinct description of Obama’s Afghanistan approach that I’ve heard.