Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
On Feb. 9, a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s Helmand province killed Abdul Rauf, an Islamic State leader attempting to spread the would-be caliphate’s influence into South Asia. While key operational details have not been made public, we can make reasonable educated guesses based on past patterns: Most likely, the drone flew out of Kandahar Airfield, some 60 miles away , after days or weeks of surveillance by other unmanned aircraft. Further, some of the information used to find Rauf may have come from a joint U.S.-Afghan special forces raid against an al-Qaeda leader, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti, in Nangarhar province in October. According to the New York Times, that raid not only killed Kuwaiti but also netted a computer chock-full of information on other extremists.
All of the above-noted U.S. resources — armed drones, surveillance assets, commandos — would have to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of next year under President Obama’s plan to zero out combat units in that country before he leaves the White House. Attacks against the United States’ most dangerous enemies would be much less effective in South Asia thereafter, because there is no other good place from which to stage them. The alternative would probably be to use aircraft carriers many hundreds of miles away in the Arabian Sea. Those distances would exceed the combat radius of almost all U.S. drones, require any helicopters making the trip to refuel in flight and add hours-long delays to missions. They also necessitate flying over countries that may not grant permission to use their airspace under such circumstances.
The Obama administration has the wrong mind-set on our future U.S. military posture in Afghanistan. Exit should not be the strategy or objective. Protection of the homeland is the right metric. Instead of trying to leave by a given date, we should be planning to stay. The guiding philosophy should be to build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan to finally provide a real payoff for all our investment there — in durable bases allowing our forces to continue to target our most dangerous enemies in a part of the world where they still organize and operate.
Such counterterrorism capabilities have little to do with the nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan of the past 13 years. That mission is nearly done to a practical extent, and while Obama is being ambitious in his hopes that it can be finished before 2017, there is logic in trying to largely complete the job by then. There is, however, little logic in eliminating our regional counterterrorism capability by that point. We will almost surely still need it. We should have learned from recent experiences in Iraq and Syria, as well as Libya, Mali and other countries, that we cannot end the terrorist threat in a given country on our own timetable.
Of course, the pace of drone strikes and raids in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, historically used by al-Qaeda and affiliates, can and should decline. Indeed, according to the Long War Journal, it already has — for example, after peaking at more than 100 in 2010, the number of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan fell to 24 in 2014. But some need endures. Moreover, if extremists knew that the United States no longer had capabilities in the Pashtun belts, they would probably increase their presence there.
It is not realistic for the United States to expect Afghan forces to pursue al-Qaeda and its offshoots for us after we leave the country. First, Afghanistan has no capability to fly drones in Pakistan; even if we could successfully transfer the needed assets and expertise to the Afghans, an unlikely prospect, such strikes would probably cause a crisis in Afghan-Pakistani relations. Second, inside their own country, Afghanistan’s army and police will continue to have their hands full with the Taliban. They may not have the capacity to go after key al-Qaeda-linked targets, many of which matter much more to us than to them.
Keeping two to three U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan — Bagram near Kabul, Kandahar in the south, perhaps Khost or Jalalabad in the east — would be adequate for counterterrorism purposes. With two or three operating areas, each with 1,000 to 2,000 Americans, the United States would have assets within 150 miles or less of the key areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is a comfortable tactical operating distance for both drones and helicopters carrying commandos.
Maintaining these bases might cost $5 billion to $10 billion per year. That is real money, but it is less than the effective cost of keeping naval assets in the Arabian Sea to do the same job much less well. It is far less than the $100 billion a year we spent at the peak of the war. And it is immeasurably less than the cost that could result from another large-scale terrorist attack against the United States.
Although the main purpose of such an enduring U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be counterterrorism, there could be additional benefits. We could continue to mentor modest numbers of Afghan forces at those bases, above and beyond the training mission that will continue in Kabul under Obama’s plan. These added forces could also provide us with political leverage that could reduce the chances of civil war in Afghanistan. This is the kind of leverage that we lost in Iraq after our 2011 departure — with tragic results.
With this approach, Obama will still have ended the main combat phase of two major wars on his watch. This legacy would be secure. More important, the United States would be more secure, too.