5,500: Why We Should Question the Obama Administration’s Plan for Afghanistan


Recently, President Obama reneged on a campaign promise and has passed the War in Afghanistan on to his successor, announcing that 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2017. These troops will train Afghan forces and continue to target the Taliban and al-Qaeda in a nation where Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government has struggled to consolidate control after taking power from Hamid Karzai’s administration in last year’s elections. After confirming Mullah Omar’s 2013 death, Taliban leadership has been in turmoil and birthed a splinter group calling itself the Islamic State. This Islamic State is unwilling to negotiate with Ghani’s government. Whether the 9,000-strong contingent’s drawdown to 5,500 by the end of 2017 is sufficient to keep Afghanistan afloat is a question that we should consider with a comparison to the Obama Administration’s ending of the Iraq War in 2011.

The Iraq War ended then with the Administration ignoring military advisors’ warnings, like Bush’s warnings in 2007, that said leaving without stabilizing Iraq’s social, political, and security forces would increase the “probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.” Today, one only has to point to the rise of the Islamic State to demonstrate the warnings’ prescience. In 2003, the Bush Administration made a similar miscalculation. It did not heed Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s advice for doubling the number of ground troops it intended to send into Iraq. Shinseki was concerned about stabilizing the country’s post-hostilities, and his assessment about the Iraq’s post-hostilities environment was correct.

Coming to a consensus that the Administration has done enough to recognize Afghanistan’s persistent instability by virtue of its decision to remain in Afghanistan is not enough. Instead, we must go deeper and question whether the numbers of troops and their operational doctrine will work for the broader set of goals that we have set for ourselves – squashing terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan. These were the same goals we had in Iraq.

As the Bush Administration was transitioning to the Obama Administration, al-Maliki’s government began a protracted campaign to arrest the Sons of Iraq – or members of the Sunni Awakening – who had complemented U.S. troop efforts during the Surge. The Sons were kept from positions in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), but yet the Administration still supported al-Maliki’s regime, citing familiarity with Maliki’s personality and working style. U.S. troops and our Embassy in Baghdad both knew that his government was undermining the foundations for a stable, secular Iraq. We, however, continued to move forward with negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement as initiated by the Bush Administration with a disregard for al-Maliki’s destabilizing policies.

We now know that the Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, had recommended that the U.S. maintain 20,000 troops over a flexible three to five year-long transition. The Obama Administration instead asked General Austin to plan operations based on a number of 8,000 to 10,000 troops until August of that year, when the Administration needed to begin negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). At that juncture, General Austin was asked to plan for an even smaller residual force – 5,000 troops despite the Administration’s “War Termination Assessment,” showing that the Iraqi Army would require three to five years to consolidate the U.S.’ gains over the preceding four years. Obama re-defined the U.S. presence as stabilizing, not as a counterinsurgency, and valued stability over troop drawdown as the operational goal. But, by 2011, U.S. troops were gone and Iraq’s central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was on its own. A few years later, and we have just lost our first soldier to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

This recent history raises questions. The Obama Administration has settled upon 5,500 troops through 2017, but yet questions remain over what were military advisors’ initial estimates for a residual force. We will see in a few years whether the Administration’s plan has positive or negative effects. As we have seen in the past fifteen years, politicians’ attempts to compromise military advice with political expediency have led to net losses for our global strategy. Without discounting the sanctity of U.S. military subordination to civilian leadership – civilians must, without a doubt, have the last say – we know that the vacuum left by the United States’ botched withdrawal from Iraq is correlated with the conditions that have ultimately undermined the U.S. strategic goal of stability. Brigadier General David Julazadeh has been persistently calculating how to satisfy tactical and operational goals and, by extension, the country’s strategic goals with shrinking manpower. Late last year, Rick Brennan wrote that the Administration should commission a “comprehensive strategic assessment that includes a detailed analysis of how the Afghan security environment will likely develop between 2014 and 2018” before committing to ending the war. A follow-up assessment of the manpower needed to address the emergent security environment is required.

The Obama Administration should be commended for recognizing the facts on the ground and extending the timeframe for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether the Administration’s level of commitment is enough will be seen in time. A multitude of voices – military and civilian – have already begun to suggest that it is not, and that is cause for concern.

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