Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai met at the White House in Washington DC on Friday to discuss the future of American troop deployment in Afghanistan. Cementing a durable and legal foreign troop presence before NATO’s mission officially expires in 2014 has been a constant weight on the backs of American officials responsible for the Afghanistan portfolio. That weight has been partly lifted as the two leaders agreed to accelerate the drawdown of American forces.
Before the meeting, White House officials said that no final decision about future of American troop deployment in Afghanistan would be made. This didn’t stop commentators from speculating about a number that could come out of the talks, however.
If press reports are to be believed, the Obama Administration and the military are once again fighting it out among themselves over how best to wrap up the Afghan war — a divide that is reminiscent of the weeks proceeding the surge of 2010. The White House asked the Defense Department to pare down its original request for between 15- and 20,000 troops, viewing that option as both too costly and cumbersome.
Indeed, the administration may not be on the same page. Some camps on Obama’s national security team are arguing for a lean presence of 2,500 soldiers coming into 2015. One of the president’s deputy national security advisors went even further, suggesting that the government may eventually choose to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan, a statement that was quickly derided by Afghan lawmakers as a step toward complete disaster for the country.
Fred and Kimberly Kagan, two scholars who have studied the war closely for its entire duration, also lambasted this “zero option” as woefully inadequate and one that would waste eleven years of American investment in Afghanistan.
It doesn’t seem possible for President Obama to actually follow through on leaving Afghanistan altogether. What is possible, indeed certain, however, is that the White House, and the majority of Americans, will embrace a low troop option in order to bring an unpopular war to a close.
Ensuring that the Afghan army is up to the task of defending the country without foreign assistance is currently the most important component of the NATO strategy but it may not be much of a priority when the mission ends in 2014. While creating and supporting an Afghan government that is legitimate and credible in the eyes of its people is an aspiration, the fact is that this goal cannot be achieved without constant supervision, constant prodding and billions of dollars in financial aid over a long period of time.
The United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 for one central purpose: bomb Al Qaeda into oblivion and root out its network after the September 11 terrorist attacks. As much as American officials talk about promoting a system of democracy and transparency in Afghanistan, keeping the military pressure on Al Qaeda remains the first and most important task going forward.