Obama on Afghanistan: Strategic Drawdown or Rush for the Door?


Jun 23, 2011

This commentary originally appeared on The Guardian on June 23, 2011.

Perceived as hasty exit, President Obama's withdrawal of US troops risks re-establishing the Taliban and, worse, al-Qaida

There is a growing temptation in the United States to rush to the exit in Afghanistan. President Obama's decision to pull out 33,000 troops by next summer — 10,000 in 2011 and another 23,000 in 2012 — may amplify calls for a complete withdrawal as some Americans try to wash their hands from what was once "the good war". How times have changed.

Those who call for an immediate, full exit are making a grave mistake. Such an approach risks an outcome that should be unacceptable in Washington and London: a Taliban takeover of all, or substantial portions, of Afghanistan.

That President Obama's remarks did not include a long-term commitment to assistance — like that offered to Japan and Korea decades ago — will be of great concern in Afghanistan. Without such a commitment, Afghanistan, its neighbours and its enemies will likely interpret President Obama's statement as indicating a complete withdrawal.

But there would be serious perils in abandoning Afghanistan, where the war is far from over. It would almost certainly increase Pakistan's impetus to support the Taliban and other insurgent groups as a bulwark against a perceived Indian-Afghan axis. It would also undermine any peace negotiations, if the Taliban believed it could simply wait out a US and British departure. Even withdrawing US combat forces from areas that have seen a loss of Taliban control threatens to unhinge the fragile, hard-fought success.

Most importantly, a Taliban victory would have a direct impact on US and British security interests, since al-Qaida's leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, retain an active relationship with senior Taliban and Haqqani network officials.

The US and Britain need to heed the lesson of 11 September 2001. The Taliban would allow a range of terrorist groups to operate and train on its soil. Taliban leaders are already doing this on the Pakistan side of the border. Some of their allies, such as al-Qaida, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Taiba present a direct threat. This reality makes the war in Afghanistan different from, say, the US war in Vietnam, since no group operating from Vietnam ever planned attacks against the US or British homelands.

Just look at the past decade. Most major plots and attacks, including 9/11 and 7/7, were directly linked to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Travel there has been essential to improving bomb-making skills, receiving strategic and tactical guidance, and undergoing religious indoctrination. Najibullah Zazi's plot to attack the New York subway, Faisal Shahzad's car bomb attempt in Times Square, and Ahmed Ali Khan's transatlantic plot to blow up airlines all benefited from visits to the border region.

To be clear, al-Qaida does not need a failed state. It needs a local ally. Al-Qaida leaders retain an unparalleled relationship with networks in the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, where they have a 30-year history of collaboration with Pashtun groups. These relationships are deeper and more robust than those that al-Qaida has developed in Somalia and Yemen. While al-Qaida has certainly been weakened, it is presumptuous to argue that it is "on a path to defeat", as the president put it.

Thankfully, the US and UK do not need a large force presence in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They need agile special operations forces and intelligence units that can conduct counterterrorist operations and help national and local forces conduct counter-insurgency. On the military side, an "Afghan-led counter-insurgency strategy" should focus on two goals: assist Afghan national and local forces degrade the insurgency, and target terrorist leaders.

This strategy would require decreasing the number of US forces to, perhaps, 30,000 by 2014 — not zero — depending on ground conditions and other factors. Critical to this strategy is supporting growth of the Afghan local police, a programme established by President Karzai in 2010 that helps villagers protect their communities and should better connect them to district and provincial government.

There is good reason to believe an Afghan-led counter-insurgency strategy could work. US and Nato assessments indicate that the Taliban and its allies have, over the past year, lost control of some territory in the south, the Taliban's centre of gravity.

Yet, there is a striking disconnect between the west and Afghanistan. In the west, the war is seen as going badly and President Karzai is perceived as illegitimate, inept and corrupt. In Afghanistan, the country is seen as moving in the right direction, according to a recent poll by the BBC, ABC News and other media organisations. Indeed, US and British political leaders might well envy President Karzai's 62% approval rating.

The struggle against al-Qaida and its allies operating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border remains a long one. As Winston Churchill observed over a century ago, as the British struggled in what was then called "the north-west frontier", time in this area is measured in decades, not months or years. It's a concept that doesn't always come easy to westerners. And it is desperately lacking now.

Seth Jones is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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