Moderate voices in the national security community have begun to urge President Obama to reconsider imposing a firm draw-down timeline in Afghanistan after the U.S. has been forced to re-engage in Iraq in efforts to to stop the Islamic State and prevent genocide.
In late May during a speech at West Point, Obama revealed his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan, which stressed the importance of soft power and international alliances over military might and unilateral action.
Obama at the time said he plans to slash the current level of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan by more than two-thirds by the end of the year with that number cut in half by 2015 and reduced further at the end of 2016 to a small military presence at the U.S. embassy.
But that was before the Islamic State advanced in a lightning sweep across Iraq and led a murderous campaign against religious and other ethnic minorities, threatening the dissolution of the country itself.
Shuja Nawaz, a native of Pakistan and the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said the biggest lesson the White House can take from the rapid disintegration of security in Iraq is that “the nature and speed of withdrawal from any country has repercussions.”
“The conditions have changed dramatically in the region” since Obama’s speech at West Point and “it may be time to rethink some marginal changes in that draw-down strategy that will allow Afghanistan a little more breathing room to get its political and military act together,” he told the Washington Examiner.
Even though Afghanistan’s two run-off candidates to replace Hamid Karzai as president have bitterly contested the election, Nuwaz still considers it successful.
“Despite the allegations of rigging — I don’t know any election in any state at this stage of democracy that was ever free of rigging — it was a big victory in the face of threats as well as offers of bribes from the Taliban not to come out to vote,” he said.
The least the United States can do now, he argued, is give the new government some “leeway” to fix the problems that exist in its Constitution and provide intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assistance to Afghan forces against inevitable Taliban threats.
Specifically, he urged Obama to reconsider the need to draw down troops to fewer than 5,000 by the end of 2015 and almost completely by 2016. The U.S. also should be poised to provide air support from the Persian Gulf or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean if the Taliban tries to attack the Afghan military, as expected.
So far, the White House has resisted talk of changing its strategy in Afghanistan even after the killing of an American two-star general there, the most senior military officer to die in a war zone since Vietnam.
White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly rejected suggestions that the chaos in Iraq would have any impact on the exit strategy in Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, Obama sidestepped a question on whether the situation in Iraq would cause him to recalibrate his decision to pull nearly all combat troops out of Afghanistan in two years.
Acknowledging that we have a “follow-on force” there right now, he said Iraq should provide Afghanistan an example of what not to do when it comes to running a government.
“I think the real lesson of Afghanistan is that if factions in a country, after a long period of civil war, do not find a way to come up with a political accommodation, if they take maximalist positions and their attitude is I want 100 percent of what I want, and the other side gets nothing, then the center doesn’t hold,” he said.
In an interview with the BBC in mid-June, Karzai flatly dismissed the possibility that Afghanistan could easily fall prey to terrorist groups or the Taliban.
Nuwaz, however, isn’t convinced. The Taliban, he said, will inevitably try to take over the country once the U.S. footprint is smaller. The Islamic State, al Qaeda and other terrorist elements, he said, are not a direct threat right now but could prove to be in the future.
“If Afghanistan becomes a free-fire zone and the groups that are now forming [the Islamic State] in the Middle East are likely to want to re-infiltrate back into Afghanistan" if they see a potential safe haven, he said.
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia and is now a senior adviser at the left-of-center National Security Network, said the conditions on the ground should determine our draw-down levels over the next two years not an arbitrary timetable.
“I see it as conditions-based, and that’s how we have operated in other parts of the world,” he said. “If things become more and more peaceful and the levers of the Afghan government continue to function and the Taliban start integrating politically ... then the [U.S.] requirements for the security function get reduced.”
“A lot of us in the military,” he said, thought the U.S. should have left a U.S. contingent — military, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance — in Iraq as the U.S. has done in many other places in the world such as Germany, South Korea, Japan and Bosnia.
“It allows for a more faithful intelligence picture — it allows for direct influence and advice and it just makes engagement so much easier,” he said. “It has borne fruit so very well in [many] countries.”