“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.” –President Barack Obama, January 28, 2014
In the little time President Obama spent discussing foreign policy in his most recent State of the Union address, he made Afghanistan one of the key issues. The US-led war in that country is meant to come to a close by the end of this year as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, a group comprised mainly of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police) assume responsibility for the security of the country. As per a bilateral security agreement that has already been negotiated, the United States intends to leave a small contingent of US forces in Afghanistan past 2014 to conduct counter-terrorism missions and to continue training the ANSF. For such purposes, hawkish policy analysts have argued that at least 30,000 troops must be stationed in Afghanistan beyond 2014; more modest proposals estimate that only 10,000 troops are necessary. For the Pentagon, however, the choice is either 10,000 troops or none at all. The latter—the so-called “zero option”—would be a more efficacious use of American resources.
The two specific objectives that could warrant a continued American presence in Afghanistan, as previously mentioned, are counter-terrorism operations and training of the Afghan forces. More broadly, a residual presence in Afghanistan is usually justified in terms of the gains made so far—if we pull out too soon, we risk losing the gains we have made, or so the argument goes. It is not entirely clear, however, what gains have been made or whether they will last even if American troops stay in the country beyond 2014.
With regards to the Afghan forces, for example, training has so far been a dismal failure, thanks in part to high rates of attrition among the troops. Even basic literacy programs may not have any lasting effect. Though “green-on-blue” attacks by Afghanistan forces against U.S. and allied troops dropped in 2013, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has repeatedly expressed concerns about the capabilities of the ANSF. A large, long-term presence would be necessary to turn the Afghan personnel into a proper fighting force, but that is not a commitment the United States is willing or able to make, nor should it.
Few would argue against the need to continue conducting counter-terrorism operations in the region. Indeed, much recent commentary has focused on the desire of those in the Intelligence Community who do not want to lose access to drone bases in Afghanistan—drone bases that require troops to provide security in addition to an extensive technical and support staff. As Paul Pillar has recently noted, however, “Drones flown from a runway in Afghanistan are just one tool used in one location on behalf of one objective out of the many that ought to bear on U.S. foreign policy decisions.”
Drones have become the idiomatic tail wagging the dog, taking the focus off broader US interests and pushing policy-makers toward a suboptimal outcome in Afghanistan. Bearing in mind that drone strikes may well be counterproductive and that there are other tools with which such missions may be conducted, it is unclear if drone strikes make the United States any more secure.
It is hard to make the case that billions of dollars must be spent and thousands of troops must remain in harm’s way simply to target terrorists with one particular tool of war. Moreover, as the terrorists being targeted tend to be on Pakistani territory, it may make more sense to work with Pakistan (difficult as that may be) than to rely on a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan.
No matter what the United States does, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will be able to maintain its own stability in the long term, but it is equally unclear that an American presence would add anything to the future stability and legitimacy of an Afghan government. Afghanistan is not currently on track for long-term stability, and the United States could only put it on that path through an enormously costly, overbearing presence in the country, an expenditure that would likely provide little return on investment. The United States can continue to squander its resources through an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan, or it can withdraw. The zero option is the most sensible one.