President Barack Obama announced this week that the United States would complete its pullout of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, leaving 9,800 troops by the end of this year and cutting that in half by 2015. A small force will remain to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul and help with local security. The president said this would free up combat troops for emerging terrorism threats in the Middle East and North Africa and effectively put an end to the longest war in U.S. history.
Ret. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009-2011, answers a few questions about the way forward. Eikenberry is the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at CISAC.
Critics say the drawdown is too dramatic and rapid and could seriously diminish the progress NATO and its allies have made in the country. What is your view?
I think the drawdown schedule is militarily sound and responsible. First, the commander on the ground has indicated his support for the timelines. Second, by the end of 2016 – the announced target date for completion of the military drawdown – our armed forces will have operated in Afghanistan for over 15 years. It will be time for the Afghan government, with continued U.S. and international material and security assistance support, to take full responsibility for the defense of its country. In fact, the president's announcement represents the culmination of combined U.S., NATO, and Afghanistan planning that began in 2010.
Third, militant extremists in distant lands often effectively exploit the presence of U.S. armed forces serving in their county to rally support for their cause. At some point, large scale U.S. military deployments can become counterproductive, undermining efforts to develop accountable responsible governance and security forces.
Are the Afghans ready to take over the security operations in their country?
U.S. and NATO military forces have been complimentary about the performance of the Afghan National Army and Police since they began in 2012 to assume greater responsibility for securing their country. Certainly, the Afghan security forces did well protecting the recent April 5th presidential election. Their major challenges will be ensuring adequate international monetary support (perhaps $3 billion a year for some years to come) and adapting to a tactical environment in which they will not have access to U.S. and NATO firepower, logistics, communications, and intelligence. Combat against the Taliban will be more equal contests.
There are concerns that the Taliban is sitting in the wings, just waiting for the withdrawal of American troops. Are those concerns valid?
I have heard this argument since I first served in Afghanistan in 2002. I don't buy it. By 2016 we'll be in the 15th year of a military mission that began in 2001. Will another 15 years be adequate to prove we can "wait them out?" It is time for the Afghans to take charge of their own destiny. Furthermore, the Taliban are not a cohesive movement; there is not a centralized Taliban command "waiting in the wings." Last, the Taliban are not the primary threat to Afghan stability.The greater challenges are Pakistan's policies towards Afghanistan, Afghanistan national political reconciliation, and massive government corruption.
What is the legacy that the United States leaves behind?
Most Afghans have told me over the years that the greatest U.S. legacy will be democracy and all that has brought. If Afghanistan is able to strengthen its political institutions and stabilize the country in the years after foreign forces return to their homes, I would agree that the introduction of democracy will be what we are remembered for.