Keeping U.S. Troops in Afghanistan: RAND Experts React


Oct 15, 2015

U.S. soldiers arrive at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 17, 2015

U.S. soldiers arrive at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 17, 2015

Photo by Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

President Obama announced that the United States will keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 to train and advise the Afghan Army and conduct counterterrorism operations. The announcement that Obama was stepping back from his vow to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his second term comes just weeks after the Taliban seized control of the northern city of Kunduz before being repelled by Afghan forces with U.S. air support.

A group of RAND experts on Afghanistan agreed that sticking to the plan to remove all troops from the country by the end of next year would have ignored the reality on the ground, as demonstrated by the fall of Kunduz, and would have only made an unstable situation more so. Here's what they said.

  • The proposed level of commitment in Afghanistan is, I think, sustainable. Gen. John Campbell, the commander on the ground, is right that this is likely to be a long-term challenge. I would note that beyond the geopolitical and national security imperatives, there is a powerful humanitarian case for maintaining America's current modest military presence in Afghanistan. And while I don't think the U.S. should make an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan, neither should it be setting firm deadlines.

    James Dobbins

    Senior Fellow

  • Based on current trends in Afghanistan, including the recent Taliban offensive in Kunduz and the expansion of Islamic State activity in the east and south, halting the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan was a wise decision. In retrospect, the United States should not have set a deadline in the first place for when it was withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. It should have made that decision based on conditions on the ground.

    “Still, the situation in Afghanistan is serious. The Afghan government is facing a significant political crisis. The battlefield performance of Afghan National Security Forces has been deeply mixed. The Taliban has increased its control of territory in some areas of the east, south, and west — not just the north.

    “If the security situation is worsening with just under 10,000 U.S. troops, 5,500 troops won't stop this trend. But 5,500 U.S. forces — particularly special operations forces and air power — may be sufficient to deter or prevent the Taliban from taking and especially holding most key population centers. The U.S. presence may prevent Afghanistan from deteriorating as quickly as Iraq did after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. But it's unclear whether the U.S. strategy and posture in Afghanistan will be enough to turn the Afghan ship around.

    Seth G. Jones

    Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center

  • President Obama's announcement of a delayed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was clearly the right decision. A year and a half ago, or even six months ago, the choice would have been much more difficult. What changed?

    “First, until former president Hamid Karzai left office in September 2014, the U.S. had no credible partner leading the government of Afghanistan. When President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah were sworn in, the Afghan government's leadership immediately went from being an impediment to a partner (albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one). Without an ally in Kabul — however weakened and flawed — any U.S. troop commitment would be next to useless.

    “Second, the Taliban's capture of Kunduz two weeks ago was a real wake-up call. This was the first time since its 2001 ouster that the Taliban have ever seized a city, let alone a provincial capital. Moreover, they did so with alarming ease: some 7,000 Afghan security force troops were driven out by only a few hundred Taliban fighters. The city was only retaken with the aid of U.S. air power and Special Operations Forces embedded with Afghan units. The fall of Kunduz sent a powerful message: Without a robust U.S. presence, the Afghan forces are unable to prevent similar Taliban advances throughout the country.

    “Last, the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. What had seemed impossible six months ago is a real prospect today. Many Taliban units, disaffected by the knowledge that leader Mullah Mansour kept the death of founding leader Mullah Omar secret for years, have cast their lot with the Islamic State. The Islamic State has operated in Nangarhar and elsewhere in Afghanistan — bringing its unique brand of savagery to the field. President Obama has no desire to see Afghanistan go the way of Iraq — and his decision to maintain the current troop level for the near term is clearly intended to help avoid that tragic outcome.

    Jonah Blank

    Senior Political Scientist

  • Re #Afghanistan decision: Those citing the $ aspect in objecting, please stop insinuating the true cost of pulling everyone out is zero.

    Jason H. Campbell

    Associate Policy Analyst

    Source: @JasonHCampbell

  • Obama made changes to troop commitments in Afghanistan, but he also noted that the U.S. 'cannot separate the importance of governance with the issues of security.' This commitment is much more vague and more difficult to follow through on. But without finding ways to strengthen the government's authority across the country, it will be difficult for any troop presence to succeed in the counterterrorism and security force development missions the president laid out.

    “There have been numerous security losses across Afghanistan, despite the 9,800 troop presence, but the government is also facing challenges of erosion of authority. It's so focused on factions within, and pressure without that it cannot effectively govern and strongmen on the periphery are growing in influence. The presence of U.S. troops cannot halt these trends, but it can slow their progress. This won't be effective unless the other half of Obama's promise — to support real reform of the Afghan government — is realized.

    S. Rebecca Zimmerman

    Associate Policy Analyst

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