Leaving Afghanistan

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The longest war in American history is technically over. Now what? The U.S. and its NATO allies marked the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan as 2014 came to a close. The remaining 13,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 11,000 of them American, support a new government that must deal with divisions and corruption even as it faces continuing Taliban attacks. The U.S. plans to withdraw nearly all its forces by the end of 2016, but that would leave Afghanistan’s weak military to fend off the tenacious Taliban on its own. Those are the facts 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

In February, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said his country would consider slowing its timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. His statement reflected doubts that the Afghan military, hampered by insufficient air power, among other things, would be prepared to stand on its own by the scheduled U.S. pullout. Ghani has favored the presence of foreign forces. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had balked at signing a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., leaving the U.S. to weigh the option of complete withdrawal. In addition to security assistance, Afghanistan needs money. Its population of roughly 27 million is the poorest in Asia. 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.  Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized Kabul from the warlords who all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule and gave al-Qaeda a base for training and for launching terrorist operations. 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 U.S. 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 NATO-led coalition. 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. The U.K., which at the peak had 9,500 troops in the country, has suffered more than 450 fatalities. More than 14,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict just from 2009 through 2013, according to the United Nations.

The Argument

Some U.S. 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 2014, 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 a complete pullout — 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 editors responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net

Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net