James F. Jeffrey was ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the Philip Solondz Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ronald E. Neumann, ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
With his decision Tuesday to keep almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 but then to withdraw them all by the end of 2016, President Obama has made half of a good decision, only to seriously compromise it with the other half.
The United States is reeling from foreign policy challenges from Ukraine to Syria. Afghanistan could be the place for a success on the ground, where we could reverse the prevailing global view of U.S. weakness. But this would require a limited troop commitment to accomplish missions, not just to meet a timeline.
The president’s decision on keeping troop levels was welcome, if overdue. The decision affects not only the fate of Afghanistan but also the stability along the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan-India axis, as well as how NATO sees its future global role.
We believe strongly in the need to keep a residual U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan, primarily to help train and assist the Afghan National Army conduct counterterrorism operations, to resolve the larger considerations about NATO’s future and to provide psychological certainty to Afghans. But before limiting how long that force could remain — splitting the decision into contradictory parts — two other factors needed to be considered.
The first is the perception that the United States lacks firmness in standing up to challenges to the international order. This may not be fair. In Manila, the president made a spirited defense of his security policies. Nevertheless, the impression of weakness is so widespread that it takes on reality in the minds of allies and opponents. This situation has advanced to such a degree that the only antidote is U.S. action.
Afghanistan offers the right location and mission for such action. Maintaining a force of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops could counter arguments that the administration, whenever it has the choice, opts for pulling out — or not putting in — forces. So limited a force, while not conducting significant ground operations itself, would thus serve multiple U.S., Western and Afghan goals. Within Afghanistan, it would add to the momentum seen in the country’s elections, which showed strong popular resistance to the Taliban and great progress by the army. We really do have much to build on, but the Afghan army’s support functions remain rudimentary, and U.S. help is essential to keep the army fighting.
Then there is the other half of the decision: to cut the U.S. force in half in a year and withdraw it in two. This lacks logic. We are committing people to a mission that could require their lives and which is supposedly essential to us, all the while declaring that in less than three years none of this will be in effect. First, this will undercut the desired global impact of the “troops stay” decision by signaling reluctance, not will. Second, the plan in Afghanistan explicitly replicates the Iraq model of putting the training, equipping and counterterrorism functions inside an embassy and an office of military cooperation. This is a route to failure.
When we attempted this in Iraq in 2011, bureaucratic obstacles ranging from legal-immunity questions involving diplomats and soldiers to budget and authority battles among different U.S. agencies and their congressional supporters tied up our efforts in knots. The Iraqis saw the effort as a half-measure and were reluctant to allow “intrusive” U.S. monitoring and advising through a diplomatic establishment as opposed to a military partnership.
Even worse, without a force “at risk” and a commander to mobilize Pentagon and interagency attention, Washington lost focus. This compounded the bureaucratic and host-nation problems. Today in Iraq, we are again trying to cope with a surging al-Qaeda presence by strengthening the embassy model. In Afghanistan, without a U.S.-led military presence, the loss of bureaucratic focus would make it even more difficult to obtain funding for the Afghan army and civilian development, and Afghanistan lacks the oil money of Iraq to compensate.
Alternative arrangements in Afghanistan are likely to fail, as they are still at risk of failing in Iraq. Being able to say that the Obama White House “totally ended two wars by the end of 2016” — whatever has transpired during the interim — risks undermining more than a decade of effort and deepening international questions about the staying power of the Obama administration. The fix is easy: Change the 2016 deadline to “when the end of the mission that these troops have risked their lives for is accomplished.”