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way for the an Obama administration plan to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, almost all of whom will be withdrawn by the end of 2016. Afghanistan’s president at the time, 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. But even as he made those threats Karzai was a lame duck. All the major candidates in the 2014 presidential elections said they favored retaining some level of NATO forces, and after taking office, Ghani said he would quickly sign the U.S. pact , putting the nation on track to take over its own security despite the shortcomings of its military. Afghanistan needs money, too. 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. There’s also political instability — Ghani was declared the election’s winner only after months of negotiation and the signing of a power-sharing agreement with the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah. Well before that, fear of the post-NATO future had already slowed economic growth.

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 that 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. Almost 2,200 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, suffered 448 fatalities through the end of March. The United Nations says that more than 14,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict just since 2009.

The Argument

Even though officials in Washington and Kabul expected a resolution, Karzai’s rebuff of the plan to keep some NATO troops in the country 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 if Afghanistan gives 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, 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 editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net