Obama’s contingency plans in Afghanistan

How American security goals can be advanced after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the year.

Currently, the US and NATO have about 50,000 troops in Afghanistan [Reuters]

By informing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, our military, our NATO allies and the American people on February 25 that the US is finally planning an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan if Karzai does not sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA), US President Barack Obama has acted prudently and in a strategically sound manner.

Currently, the US and our NATO allies have about 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from about 100,000 about two years ago. The United Nations and NATO mandate to keep these foreign troops on Afghan soil expires at the end of this year.

US plans full troop pullout from Afghanistan

Therefore, the president must assume that these troops, and all of their equipment, will have to be completely out of the country and their bases in Afghanistan closed within 10 months.

Therefore, it is prudent that the military begin now to plan to “accomplish an orderly withdrawal” by the end of the year. By waiting until later in the year to begin planning for a complete withdrawal, Obama would create a logistical nightmare for our forces and those of our allies.

In fact, our NATO allies demanded clarity on the US position before their February 27 defense ministers meeting. 

There’s no doubt that the US and its allies would like to leave a residual force of between 3,000 and 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014. These troops would be stationed at four military bases throughout the country, so that they could continue to train Afghan Security Forces, conduct drone strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and conduct counterterrorism missions within Afghanistan in conjunction with Afghan security forces.

Leaving this residual force advances several core American security goals. It would increase the likelihood that the post-Karzai administration would be able to prevent the Taliban from taking over all or part of the country as they did when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and forestall al-Qaeda central from reestablishing itself in the country.

Not a colonial power

However, there are  – at least – five benefits to Obama’s announcement that the US is planning for a complete withdrawal of ISAF forces. First, it sends a signal to the people of Afghanistan that, unlike the British and the Russians, which did occupy Afghanistan in the past, the US is not an occupying or colonial power. This will help undermine the narrative of US occupation that the Taliban and other groups use to rally support among the Afghan people and turn them against the central Afghan government.

And while the majority of Afghans want us to remain, at least for a short time, not all of them are convinced we would really willingly leave Afghanistan in the future. Planning for a full withdrawal at the end of the year establishes that the US is serious about leaving Afghanistan, whether now or in the future.

Second, it not only puts pressure on Karzai to make a deal with us before he leaves office, but to negotiate a BSA that is acceptable to the Obama administration and the American people, i.e. one that gives immunity to American forces from the Afghan justice system.

Given some of Karzai’s statements and actions over the last couple of years, it is clear that he believes that the US wants a deal to keep troops and bases in Afghanistan more than it actually does, and will tolerate nearly any provocation as long as a deal is reached.

Given some of Karzai’s statements and actions over the last couple of years, it is clear that he believes that the US wants a deal to keep troops and bases in Afghanistan more than it actually does, and will tolerate nearly any provocation as long as a deal is reached.

For example, he recently released 65 prisoners that had US and Afghan blood on their hands, against the wishes of the American commander. In addition, Karzai may believe that given the deteriorating security situation in Iraq after the complete US withdrawal there, the US may be desperate to avoid a similar situation in Afghanistan, giving him the upper hand in the negotiations. Obama’s announcement makes it clear to Karzai that the US is willing to leave Afghanistan without a BSA.

Third, it has forced all of the candidates running to replace Karzai in the April election to take a positive stand on the issue. As opposed to Karzai’s posturing and foot-dragging, the candidates’ support of the BSA more accurately reflects the will of the Afghan people.

Fourth, Obama’s action will allow the US adequate time to begin exploring other options to protect its interests in the region, if we are not allowed to keep troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This could include stationing forces in one of the Central Asian Republics. And while this is not an ideal solution, given their human rights records, we have used these bases extensively during the conflict in Afghanistan.

Fifth, seeing Obama stand up to Karzai and plan for a complete withdrawal of US forces could persuade a war-weary American people and Congress to continue to provide financial aid to the Afghan government. Even if we are allowed to keep troops on the ground after December 31, 2014, the US and its allies will still need to provide the foreign aid that the Afghan government depends on.

In Fiscal Year 2011, foreign aid amounted to nearly $16 bn – about equal to Afghanistan’s GDP. Since the majority of the American people no longer think that the Afghan war was worth fighting, particularly given Karzai’s erratic behaviour and his lack of appreciation for their sacrifices of blood and treasure, they welcome Obama finally laying down the law to the Afghan leader.

There is little doubt that Obama, our military commanders, and our NATO allies wish that this situation was already resolved. However, Karzai’s actions left Obama little choice but to call his bluff. Hopefully, Karzai’s successor will have time to make a deal before it becomes logistically impossible to do so.

But, even if a satisfactory BSA can be concluded with Karzai or his successor by the end of the year, we must keep in mind that the deal would only be for a limited period of time. US and NATO forces would still withdraw completely within several years. Ultimately, the Afghan government and its citizens will have to determine their own future.

Lawrence J Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and Logistics.