Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan Aug. 22. www.army.mil

WASHINGTON- When it comes to Afghanistan, the number to stay focused on is 2014, experts say.

Now entering its tenth year, the war in Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam last summer as the longest in U.S. history.

While the Obama administration will begin withdrawing some U.S. military personnel this July, officials have said the drawdown may only involve a couple of thousand troops.

The administration has left its plans for this year intentionally vague, according to some foreign policy analysts.

“There have been no announcements so I don’t think anyone knows what will happen [this year],” said Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council of Foreign Relations. “The standard assumption is that there will be some sort of drawdown but it will be small. The administration has intended to talk more about 2014 and less about 2011 over time, with the State of the Union being an exception.”

During this year’s State of the Union Address, President Obama committed 136 words to the war in Afghanistan. His statement, falling between the word range of a tweet and a text message, ended with a soft promise: “And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home,” the president said.

The key word is “begin”.

While two years ago, the President announced both his plans for an initial troop surge, and for a troop drawdown beginning this summer, the real administration timetable is for 2014 – and even that on a “conditions-based” pace, Biddle said.

At a NATO summit in Lisbon last November, with President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in attendance, leaders set the end of 2014 as the target date to cease allied combat missions there.

“The administration recognized that the July 2011 announcement had the effect of communicating to the Taliban, Karzai and the Pakistani government that the U.S. was unlikely to stay long enough to make changes,” Biddle said.

The plan to begin withdrawals this year has a “signaling component,” according to Biddle.

“The 7/11 date signals to the American public (and Democrats in the Congress) that the war isn’t forever – there’s a limit to our involvement. It might also have been intended to signal optimism […] but that could be done without setting a date per se,” he wrote in an email. “I suspect it was hoped that it would also signal to President Karzai that he needed to reform his government promptly”.

While no exact numbers have been released, the troop drawdown scheduled this July depends upon the status of Afghan security forces. If Afghan security forces are stronger, Joint Chiefs of Adm. Staff Michael Mullen has said the troop drawdown will likely be larger. If Afghan security forces are weaker, a smaller drawdown is more likely. The flowchart outlines possible outcomes of a troop drawdown and its effect on the status of combat operations in 2014. (Graphic by Roshan Nebhrajani/Medill News Service)

Running a never-ending race

“When 9/11 hit, it was clear to me that we were not going to win that war like WWI or WWII where it starts and it ends. It would be more like the Cold War and it would last over a sustained period of time,” former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld said last Tuesday.

Rumsfeld served as Secretary of Defense for five years under President George W. Bush, a term that spanned the September 11th terrorist attacks and the beginnings of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under both President Bush and President Obama, the U.S. war aim in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, what the Bush Administration called an “existential threat.”

“The U.S. gave an ultimatum to the Taliban to turn over al Qaeda and the Taliban decided against that. The operation itself was explicitly designed to convey a foreign policy by the US in the post 9/11 world,” said to Jonathan Caverley, former submarine officer for the U.S. Navy and current professor at Northwestern University. “The use of force was a point in itself.”

“In 2001 there were twin objectives: we wanted to punish the Taliban and eject al Qaeda. Those things were accomplished,” said Staff Sergeant Paul Kane, spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Although by 2002 U.S. military forces had quickly toppled the Taliban, the war was not over.

“The object shifted to nation building, that is trying to empower the Afghans to have [...] a centralized government, to train security forces, provide economic opportunity and inject democracy,” Sgt. Kane said.

In the May 2010 National Security Strategy, President Obama said that “The United States is waging a global campaign against al-Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates,” rooted in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qa’ida.”

But critics say that once the Taliban fell, U.S. war aims expanded to an extent some call “mission creep.”

“The war aims are to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda; however, because U.S. officials still conflate al Qaeda with the Taliban, the aim has morphed into breaking the momentum of an indigenous, Pashtun insurgency,” according to Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “The ends and means simply don’t compute and America is stuck in a classic case of mission creep.”

“Mission creep” describes a gradual expansion of an operation beyond its original goals.
Essentially, it can resemble running a race with a perpetually moving finish line.

In a report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, Fredrick and Kimberly Kagan argue that nation-building is not mission creep, but rather the pre-requisite for successful withdrawal.

“Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able—with greatly reduced international support—to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists,” according to the report.

When to withdraw

According to the Marine Corps’ Sgt. Kane, problems arise because there is no way to accurately define the path and amount of time it will take to “build” the Afghan nation, that is, implementing a strong Afghan governing body and stable security structure that would allow allied forces to leave.

“The goal isn’t to withdraw. If the only goal is to withdraw, that would be real easy. The goal is to secure our war aims,” Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations said.

Experts, like Biddle, argue against establishing an arbitrary deadline. Instead, the administration should focus on clearly defining what governing structure “they can live with.”

The Bush administration’s governing blueprint for Afghanistan was heavily centralized.

“The 2004 Afghan constitution sets up the most centralized government on the planet,” Biddle said.

With limited resources, rampant corruption and ethnic divisions, Afghanistan lacks the prerequisites necessary for sustaining a centralized democracy, according to Biddle.

In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates encouraged the Obama administration to be less ambitious. “If we set the goal [of creating] a Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose,” Gates said.

Experts from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Afghan Study Group also counsel the Obama administration to abandon the pursuit of a heavily centralized system.

Decentralized democracy can take many forms, they say, including mixed internal sovereignty – that is, a varied form of governance throughout the country, with some provinces possibly operating without elections. In exchange for autonomy, governors could agree not to challenge the authority of the central government.

This would establish functioning governance, bringing a stable Afghanistan closer, according to Biddle.

The troops

“On September 30, there were approximately 96,695 U.S. Forces and approximately 48,842 international forces in Afghanistan,” according to the Defense Department’s most recent Progress Toward Security and Stability report submitted to Congress.

“An additional 1,400 marines went to Afghanistan last week, and there are about 28,000 marines already there,” Sgt. Kane said on Feb 1st.

But while U.S. forces remain the majority of foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan, the support of America’s international allies is dwindling.

The appetite to withdraw is growing among “the German and French public. Several countries have begun meeting to close operations this year,” Sgt. Kane said.

With force reductions already underway by the Netherlands and Canada, the NATO Combined Joint Statement of Requirements falls short of the required number of troops by 8,900.

“The CJSOR is based upon the minimum military requirement to execute the task this Alliance has set for its military,” according to Supreme Allied Commander Europe General John Craddock. “The task includes establishing both security and stability, and they must be accomplished simultaneously.”

While the U.S. plans to begin withdrawing some troops within months, the Pentagon has said combat operations will continue at least until the end of 2014.

In discussing the NATO timetable last fall, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell called the 2014 withdrawal date “aspirational” and left open the possibility some U.S. forces would to remain to help Afghan security forces.

I don’t think anybody could tell you with any credence what the force posture will be four years from now. It’s just impossible to know,” Morrell briefed Pentagon reporters in November. “[We] can’t even tell you, for example, how many forces we estimate will be coming out or reinvested come July 2011, let alone, you know, four years from now.”

“War is not certain,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said last month. “It’s deadly and it has an unpredictability to it that is very, very tough to integrate into exact dates, exact numbers and exact times.”

It's easy to get lost in all the war "terms." Here's a glossary to help wade through it. (Graphic by Roshan Nebhrajani/Medill News Service)

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