Leaving Afghanistan

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The longest war in American history is nearing its end. Then what? The U.S. and its NATO allies are planning to leave behind a small force to help prop up what has been a corrupt and divided government. But how deep and long-lasting the commitment will ultimately be in terms of money and troops is less clear. Even a more gradual departure would eventually leave Afghanistan’s weak military to fend off the tenacious Taliban on its own. Those are the choices facing Ashraf Ghani Ahmadza, the country’s new leader, and U.S. President Barack Obama, who once called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war worth fighting.”

The Situation

Ghani’s inauguration in September cleared the way for an Obama administration plan to leave 10,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, almost all of whom are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2016. At that point, Afghanistan, whose military faces significant challenges, is supposed to take over its own security. Afghanistan’s previous president, Hamid Karzai, had balked at signing a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., putting a similar NATO plan in jeopardy and leaving the U.S. to weigh the “zero option” for complete withdrawal. In late November, the Afghan parliament unanimously approved pacts keeping U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Weeks before, Obama quietly authorized U.S. troops to continue carrying out ground and air operations to protect themselves, despite his earlier pledge that they would have no combat role in the new year. In addition to security assistance, Afghanistan needs money. Its population of roughly 27 million is the poorest in Asia, and opium exports make up about 13 percent of its GDP. The countries that have provided billions of dollars in aid are hesitating over giving more to a country weakened not only by war but by entrenched corruption, ethnic rivalries and meddling neighbors.

Sources: ISAF, U.S. Department of Defense, Brookings Institution
Sources: ISAF, U.S. Department of Defense, Brookings Institution

The Background

In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, following in a centuries-long tradition of failed occupations. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged. What followed was bloody chaos until the Taliban seized Kabul from the warlords who all but leveled it. Along with imposing stern theocratic rule, the Taliban gave al-Qaeda a base for training and for launching terrorist operations abroad. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered a U.S. invasion when the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. When Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the American mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined a coalition under NATO leadership. In 2009, Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of Bin Laden, led Obama to seek to wind down the war.  The U.S. has spent an estimated $650 billion on the Afghanistan war. More than 2,300 American service members have lost their lives and about 20,000 have been injured. The U.K., which at the peak had 9,500 troops in the country, has suffered more than 500 fatalities. The United Nations says that more than 14,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict just from 2009 through 2013.

The Argument

Karzai’s rebuff of the plan to keep some NATO troops in Afghanistan forced a rethinking of U.S. goals, a debate that continues. Some American intelligence officials and lawmakers think it’s time to bring all the troops home even though Afghanistan has given permission for some to stay. They fear getting drawn back in to the fighting if the Kabul government falters. Others say that the U.S. shouldn’t just walk away after such a commitment of lives and money. They argue that, with help, the Afghan government can contain the insurgency and prevent the re-emergence of al-Qaeda. In August, after an attack at a military training academy that resulted in the death of a U.S. general, Republicans renewed their calls for U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan until the job is finished. Both sides point to Iraq, where the government forced the U.S. into a total withdrawal. The continuing sectarian violence and resurgent anti-Western extremists there can stand as a reminder of the perils of the zero option — or of the reasons for getting out before the bottom drops out.

The Reference Shelf

  • The U.S. Congressional Research Service reviewed post-Taliban governance, security and U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
  • Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, prepared a four-volume report and analysis of the evolving conflict in Afghanistan.
  • Two Rand Corp. analysts, Seth G. Jones and Keith Crane, evaluate how the U.S should manage the challenges that will accompany the reduction in U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
  • The website for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the NATO coalition.
  • Bloomberg News coverage of Afghanistan.
  • UN report on corruption in Afghanistan. 

First Published April 1, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net