The Debate

The Wrong Debate Over Afghanistan

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The Debate

The Wrong Debate Over Afghanistan

Before discussing troop levels, the Obama administration needs to figure out what U.S. Afghan policy is.

The Wrong Debate Over Afghanistan
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

After a year in which Afghanistan was largely buried in the middle of the newspapers and relegated to a few seconds on the major television networks, the war is once again re-entering the international spotlight as Washington tries to push Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement before his tenure ends this April.

As America’s involvement in Afghanistan continues to draw to a close, commentators and reporters are increasingly speculating about how many U.S. troops will remain in the war-zone after the NATO mandate expires on December 31, 2014.  And, if so, how much money will continue to be spent on developing Afghanistan’s security forces and strengthening its national institutions.

The Obama administration, looking forward to the exit, would have liked to have all of those questions answered by the time President Obama addressed the U.S. Congress and the American people during his annual State of the Union speech last month.  But, as is often the case with Afghanistan, nothing is as easy or as smooth as it should be.

For a White House that keeps sensitive foreign policy and national security matters closely guarded, it is often difficult to pinpoint which options are being discussed behind closed-doors and whether the numbers floating around in public are accurate.  But if press reports are any guide, the Obama administration’s national security team is once again divided amongst itself over the Afghanistan file.  But instead of debating the wisdom of a surge of troops and counterinsurgency, the issue on everyone’s mind is the future of America’s commitment and how large that commitment should be.

Similar to the intense and drawn-out internal debate over the infusion of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan during the summer and fall of 2009, the ongoing discussions about a residual U.S. military presence are pitting the Vice President’s office and members of President Obama’s National Security Council staff against the Defense Department, State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the intelligence community.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is leading the charge for a minimal post-2014 U.S. military footprint tailored specifically for counterterrorism.  Training and advising Afghan soldiers and police officers would seemingly be scratched from the agenda—an omission that U.S. military commanders on the ground view as insufficient to the mission at hand and potentially dangerous for the prospects of the Afghan government’s survival.

Gen. Joseph R. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is leading the push against Biden’s recommendation for a smaller troop presence, arguing for 10,000 residual forces that would gradually be phased out of the country over the course of three years. While 10,000 troops would be far smaller than the 38,000 U.S. soldiers currently deployed on the ground, such a force structure would enable the U.S. military to continue training, advising, and assisting the ANSF in capabilities that they have not been able to fully develop—the collection and dissemination of intelligence, combat air support, and the maintenance of a reliable logistical system, to name a few.

As sketched out in the plan, about 2,000 troops would be tasked with conducting offensive counterterrorism operations against insurgent targets in eastern and southern Afghanistan, while the bulk of the remainder would be assigned to the training mission.  The Los Angeles Times has reported that Dunford’s plan has the full support of crucial constituencies in the Obama administration, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and CIA Director John Brennan.  Ultimately, however, President Obama will have to make the final decision.

The debate over future troop levels is undoubtedly a critical part of Washington’s Afghanistan policy, and its importance to the mission will only grow with each passing week. However, what often gets lost in the discussion over troop numbers is the bigger picture: what does the United States hope to accomplish in Afghanistan over the next three to five years?

Before the Obama administration can agree on the size of the U.S. troop presence, it will first need to determine what the overarching mission will be after 2014, and whether that mission can be achieved with the minimal resources that are supposedly supported by the Vice President’s office.  Priorities need to be set, and contingency plans need to be developed, in the event that the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates faster than expected.  The U.S. military is working on those plans as we speak, with a number of constituencies in the U.S. defense establishment providing the White House with input, including U.S. commanders on the ground, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Secretary’s office, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

President Obama, however, will need to drive the discussion and make it clear to his team what the policy is.  In his State of the Union address last month, the president declared that any residual U.S. troop presence would focus on two tasks: “training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida.”

What the White House has not spelled out, however, is which task it considers most important to America’s national interests.  Training, equipping, and mentoring Afghan soldiers and police officers over a five to ten year period will require a different force structure than a post-2014 strategy that places a heavier emphasis on counterterrorism operations against high-value insurgent targets.  To date, the American public still does not understand what its sons and daughters will be doing in Afghanistan after this year, other than vague generalities.

Without a detailed strategy of mission priorities post-2014, and clear orders from the White House, the debate over troop levels is nothing but a distraction.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., and contributing editor to The Atlantic Sentinel.