February 5, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Weighing Post-2014 Options for Afghanistan

• The war in Afghanistan is highly unpopular among the American public, with an increasing number favoring a full-scale withdrawal of US forces by December 2014

• Similar to the debate over the Afghan surge, the Obama administration is divided internally on how to proceed and on how large the future US commitment to Afghanistan should be

• The Afghan National Security Forces and other national security organizations, despite improvements in recruits and capability, is still heavily dependent on foreign economic assistance for its budget, weapons procurements, salaries, air support and medical evacuation.

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     After over twelve full years of military engagement and security transition to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the US and its NATO allies find themselves in an uncertain position about the future of their commitment to Afghanistan. Despite the completion of a final draft between US and Afghan negotiators on the terms governing a residual US troop presence in Afghanistan after December 2014, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign the agreement. In addition to adding another layer of difficulty in the US-Afghan strategic relationship, Karzai’s unwillingness to sign is having the undesired effect of prolonging the American debate surrounding the pros and cons of future involvement in the country. 

Over the coming months, the Obama administration will continue to wrestle internally with a number of factors that will ultimately decide whether a longstanding US military commitment to Afghanistan’s stability is necessary to attain its central counterterrorism goals.


Domestic Politics and a Tired American Public

Twelve years of combat, thousands of US casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars has inarguably strained the American people’s tolerance for the war in Afghanistan. Public opinion polls add credibility to this trend: a CNN survey conducted on December 30, 2013, registers a record low 17% approval rating for the war, far lower than the disapproval ratings of US military engagements in Vietnam and Iraq. Fifty-one percent of Americans polled, according to Gallup, think it was a mistake to send US military forces to Afghanistan. In addition, a January 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press found that only 38% of Americans polled thought the US achieved its goals in Afghanistan—a trend that is roughly stagnant across party lines. 

Traditionally, domestic political considerations have not resulted in a radical change of policy during a war. Yet the fact that a rising number of Americans are no longer interested in sustaining the war effort could very well have a deep impact on the Obama administration’s deliberations over the next few months. The growing popular sentiment that Afghanistan is a lost cause, whether accurate or not, will inevitably give strength and credibility to those in the Obama administration who are advocating for a full redeployment or withdrawal of American forces after the war mandate expires on January 1, 2015. At this point, a complete withdrawal would be a wise move from the domestic politics perspective, but in foreign policy terms it plays to the old complaint that the US turns up and leaves the rest to pick up the pieces—which flies in the face of assurances to that “we will not desert you, this time.”


Shortfalls in the Afghan army and police

If there is any lasting success of US strategy in Afghanistan, it is the consistent growth in manpower and independent combat capacity of the ANSF. The goal set by the US and NATO to expand the Afghan army and police to 352,000 personnel has been met. Afghanistan’s ability to execute 95% of conventional operations against the insurgency throughout the country is a visible sign that its security forces—with assistance from foreign powers in funding, logistics, and intelligence—are willing and apparently able to take the fight to the enemy.

Yet as is usually the case in large-scale military operations, significant problems remain within the ANSF that will prove to be a major factor in the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan after 2014. The attrition rate in the Afghan army through casualties, desertions, and injuries remains exceedingly high at an annual 34%.  The Afghan national army is effectively losing over one third of its force every year, a trend requiring the Afghan Government to accelerate recruitment at an increasingly demanding level just to maintain current numbers.

In addition to the attrition problem, there are a number of other deficiencies highly likely to inhibit the ANSF in the future.  Despite the Afghans’ ability to plan and lead independent operations against the Taliban nationwide, the ANSF lacks the robust aerial capability that would allow units to strike insurgent positions in remote parts of the country.  As has been predicted by military experts, the Afghan army is still struggling to build a reliable logistics system that would provide its soldiers with the food, equipment, and reinforcements needed when soldiers are dispatched to vulnerable, isolated outposts in highly difficult terrain. The possibility of the Afghan attrition rate increasing in the future, particularly through rising casualties on the battlefield, could be partially contingent on how many US and NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan, and what roles those forces will carry out.


Options for Troop Levels Post-2014

President Obama will have a variety of options at his disposal with respect to the size and configuration of any future US military presence in Afghanistan after the 2014 mandate expires: 

• High-Tier Option of 20,000-30,000: This recommendation is supported by those who strongly believe US interests would be best achieved with a residual force large enough to execute multiple objectives simultaneously. This option would provide US soldiers with the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and remnants of al-Qaeda in contested areas, while at the same time devoting enough manpower to the training, equipping, and mentoring of Afghan national security forces.

• Middle Option of 8,000-20,000: This option would focus more exclusively on special operations against terrorist sanctuaries, in addition to improving the capacity of the ANSF to execute special operations on its own. US special operations forces and operators from allied countries would be assigned to improve the Afghans’ deficit in intelligence processing and logistics, with one special operations task force devoted to the east, one to the south, and one unit overseeing the north and west

• Low Option of 3,000-8,000: Training of Afghan security forces would be secondary to counterterrorism raids on terrorist targets.  Forces within this range will make it difficult for US and NATO trainers to embed with Afghan units across the country without taking significant manpower and resources away from the counterterrorism mission.

• The “Zero-Option: Used as a bargaining chip by US officials in their negotiations with the Afghan Government, a full withdrawal of US troops is unlikely unless Afghan President Hamid Karzai or his successor fails to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in time. A small or non existent US force presence would convince allied countries in NATO to decrease their manpower and resources to a minimal level. The lack of a foreign military presence would also put donations from other countries at risk.


       • If President Hamid Karzai does not acceptance the BSA before he leaves office in April 2014, the US will press his successor hard for an immediate signature

• Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign financial assistance virtually assures that a full US and NATO troop withdrawal after 2014, would force the country’s leadership to adopt one of two choices: search for other outside sponsors in Asia and the Middle East, or cut the size of its army and police due to a weak budget

• The Taliban will remain a resilient force in the south and east of Afghanistan, and will try to execute high profile suicide attacks in the country’s major cities to frighten government supporters, slow down ANSF recruitment, and intimidate government officials.



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