With Afghan election workers continuing to count the ballots of the country’s most important presidential election since 2001, the Obama Administration is once again reopening the debate about how many troops should remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
The debate has been ongoing since last year when Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, put his foot down and refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement — a document that would allow foreign forces to stay in Afghanistan after NATO’s war mandate expires in December 2014. But with Karzai now due to be replaced by either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, the administration is putting renewed energy into the question of what kind of force would best accomplish the post-2014 mission.
Both leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election have signaled their support for the security agreement and both have acknowledged that Afghanistan’s own troops need continued support from America’s and NATO’s if they have any chance at keeping the country secure from the Taliban. The debate inside the White House and Pentagon right now is therefore not about whether American troops should stay but how many should be deployed.
Reuters reports that administration is talking about troop options that are lower than what the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, General Joe Dunford, requested. According to the news agency, the number could drop below 10,000 and the force left behind would concentrate far more on going after Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts than training the Afghan army and police. The dispatch suggests that 5,000 troops could be the number that administration officials are looking at — a figure that would be half of what General Dunford and his command recommended as minimally sufficient to train the Afghans.
President Barack Obama has talked about moving past the thirteen year-old war throughout his presidency, so much so that his administration refused to change its position when Karzai demanded additional concessions before signing the Bilateral Security Agreement. Yet for military historians and lawmakers who have been deeply opposed to the way the administration has run the war, the Reuters report is the latest indication that Obama is simply uninterested in preserving American strength and leadership around the world.
Fred Kagan, a former military historian at the West Point academy, who was a key figure in the 2007 Iraq troop surge decision, argued in The Weekly Standard this week that any American force in Afghanistan numbering fewer than 10,000 soldiers would be insufficient for force protection and increase the risk to those deployed on the ground. “If we follow through with the White House-leaked plans,” he writes, “we can expect the rapid erosion of stability in Afghanistan. We can also expect the return of Al Qaeda there, as it has returned to Iraq. We can expect, in other words, yet another instance of snatching failure from the jaws of success.”
Senators Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, three Republican defense hawks, came out with a joint statement on the same day, blasting Obama’s Afghan plans in a similar fashion. “After thirteen years of sacrifice and investment,” they wrote, “success in Afghanistan is now within our grasp. The last thing we should do in the coming years is increase the risks to our mission unnecessarily.”
Regardless of the criticism in conservative circles, President Obama is unlikely to change his plans on Afghanistan if policymakers inside his administration do not voice the same type of worry. He has consistently touted his ability to end two wars as the biggest foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency. The less Americans in Afghanistan after 2014, the more credible that argument will seem.