The United States has problems in Afghanistan, with the Taliban, Pakistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Obama administration is making them worse by dilatory decision-making about how many U.S. troops will remain there after 2014.
While recent news has focused on the latest spats with Karzai, there are some bright spots. The Afghan police is denying the Taliban passage in parts of the south where coalition troops have fought for seven years without this progress. Afghans are showing an increased willingness toward self-defense, perhaps partially in reaction to a heavy assassination campaign by the Taliban. In March I heard accounts in eastern and southern Afghanistan of the Afghan army, national police and local police forces mutually supporting one another in ways that used to be all too rare.
Yet major challenges remain as we approach the final handover of security to the Afghans in 21 months. For one thing, local police forces could yet be a long-term threat to the state if they become predatory or promote intertribal feuding. This is why the expansion of local police must be done with a deep understanding of each village where the force is formed and careful attention paid to the district police chiefs who support and supervise the force.
U.S. indecision on post-2014 forces is damaging the handover goal. So is the public discussion of troop numbers too low to achieve their stated purpose. Some allies already have shown a willingness to keep as many as 2,000 troops in northern and western Afghanistan after 2014. But they will not do so if those numbers are too large in proportion to the forces the United States intends to leave or if we take away air support the allies depend on for supplies. Other allies will make troop decisions only after we do.
Doubts about U.S. intentions confuse everyone – particularly the Afghans, who, when in doubt and as a matter of survival, move to hedging behavior instead of to professional military development. It is clear that a minimally effective force needs to have a presence in the country’s four major military areas: Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar. Without these bases, U.S. advisers would not have the reach to circulate effectively to the brigade level, where the critical strengthening of the Afghan army will need to continue.
This is what advising is all about. It is in the field, not some central camp, where the real transformation to an effective fighting force takes place. The “training and advising” that President Obama has promised needs a presence outside Kabul. So do counterterrorist forces. Not every essential strike can be launched from Kabul.
The number required to have a chance of achieving the two stated tasks of counterterrorism and advising is in the range of 10,000 U.S. troops; that number is already less than many would have liked because it leaves a dangerously small margin for error. Yes, the United States is facing financial strains. But to gamble our remaining chance of success in Afghanistan on the difference of a few thousand troops is shortsighted or displays a lack of support for the men and women whose lives are at risk in carrying out the policy. If the numbers coming out of White House discussions of troop levels are 2,000 or 3,000, the signal to friends and enemies alike will be a lack of will. It is past time to conclude the decision process.
We have troops at war who are not being told the structure they are to achieve in 21 months. There is a military transition process going on, but no one can say to what purpose without the detail required for coherent planning. The location and size of our civilian contingent after 2014 require knowing the military structure on which some of its security will rest. And our NATO allies and Afghan partners are confused as to our strategic intent.
Some say that before a final decision regarding troop numbers is made, we need to conclude a basic security agreement with Kabul that will govern the status and conditions of our forces after 2014. This is not logical. No one would buy a car on the basis of “sign now and I’ll tell you how it’s equipped later.” The Afghans need to know what is being offered if they are to meet our terms for immunity and other conditions.
Obama has stated our intent to advise and assist Afghan forces after 2014 while they take over the fight for their country’s internal security. Decisions about how to support that intent are urgently needed.