Less than 10K in the Graveyard of Empires

June 18, 2014

Stating, “We are finishing the job we started,” and, “It’s time to turn the page,” President Obama announced his decision to cut American troop levels to 9,800 by the end of this year, half that by the end of 2015, and then none by the end of 2016. All U.S. troops will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of Obama’s second term, possibly just several weeks before the next president is inaugurated.

The incomplete nature of President Obama’s strategic approach toward Afghanistan – and more broadly, toward South Asia – was laid bare in his announcement. The announced plan for the remaining American military forces until 2016 is badly flawed, but not for the reasons argued by most pundits. Mainstream American critics mainly have protested the impact of Obama’s announcement in terms of its effects on the cohesion of the Afghan military and the prospects for a growing insurgency. But that aperture is too narrow.

Think bigger.

The costs for South Asian security will be far more deleterious. President Obama’s decision to opt out of leaving a larger military force behind to safeguard U.S. interests (which would, by the way, be welcomed by many Afghans) will be seen by historians as a major strategic blunder.

There are critical security and crisis management missions that only American and allied Western forces can perform between 2015 and 2020 in South Asia. And these missions can only be accomplished from Afghanistan. But the administration has injudiciously limited itself to two narrower missions: counterterrorism against al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and pre-operational training support for the Afghan National Army (ANA). Compared to the myriad challenges the U.S. faces in South Asia, these two missions are paltry. And regardless, they are unlikely to be sufficiently manned after the end of 2015 anyway with the numbers the President has decided upon. At the same time, and worse yet, the military missions that the administration has not addressed are very critical to United States regional security interests.

Counterterrorism Operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Training the ANA

Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and pre-operational training of the ANA are the two missions that the Obama administration has accepted for its post-2014 drawdown. While the details of 2015 American force apportionment remain unclear, the announcement of 9,800 American troops beyond 2014 clearly stops well short of support for Afghanistan’s Army in the very operational areas that it remains (intentionally) underdeveloped: aerial lift, aerial medical evacuation and large caliber artillery and air strike support. It also badly short-changes the cross-boundary nature of counterterrorism operations and associated intelligence collection and crisis management vital to protecting America’s long-term interests in the region.

With justification, the administration claims that counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and international terrorist groups aiming for a return to Afghanistan remains mission number one. A credible counterterrorism contingent for Afghanistan might be sustained at around 3,500 operatives with another 300-500 military intelligence support personnel. This would be a force capable of quite a bit in Afghanistan, but little in Pakistan. Much of the critical military backbone for the intelligence and strike operations against terrorists in Pakistan – a backbone well-built from 2008-2012 –will be extracted from the Hindu Kush in the President’s plan.

Pre-operational training support for the ANA and its sister Air Force might be accomplished in cantonment, non-operational areas by about 6,000 American military personnel (with perhaps an additional 3,000 NATO trainers). But these numbers are insufficient to provide air-ground liaison with Afghan operational forces in ANA brigades and battalions – areas where American security force assistance has intentionally built an ANA well-short of self-sufficiency.

There is no way for the ANA to fight a credible counterinsurgency in the inhospitable and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan without indirect fire support, timely aerial strike support, aero-resupply, and aero-medical evacuation. American forces found this out themselves in 2004-08, and thus committed several U.S. Army helicopter battalions and multiple U.S. Air Force air wings to these missions during the 2009-2013 period – support for about 120,000 allied troops in the field. By 2015 the Afghan Army will field twice that number of ground troops yet be left with only about 10% of the air assets under the President’s plan. What does the White House reasonably expect them to accomplish?

A modest commitment of a U.S. Army helicopter lift battalion, an attack battalion and a dedicated U.S. Air Force fighter wing would necessitate another 3500-4000 American forces in 2015 and beyond. The President’s plan doesn’t pay sufficient attention to this glaring weakness, and is thus a low-ball of resourcing for the rather ambition-less mission set it has self-elected.

Counterterrorism Resourcing for a Trans-Regional Threat

Similarly, the American counterterrorism contingent of some 3800-4000 soldiers, as apparently sized by President Obama and his team, cannot perform a robust mission in Afghanistan alone, for the ever-evolving terrorist milieu is a cross-border Afghanistan-Pakistan dynamic.

Much critical technological intelligence and the many human collection assets are necessary to track the cross-border activities of the transnational terrorists present in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And to monitor their many outside connections, these assets rely upon civilian agency activities built on a backbone of military security and intelligence already present. American civilian intelligence infrastructure – painstakingly built between late 2008 and 2012 in eastern Afghanistan – will be a direct casualty of the administration’s low-balling of the residual mission. Unnamed U.S. intelligence officials have clearly stated that the CIA must now gradually close its bases along the Pakistani border and pull its operatives back to Kabul. These officials make it clear that while intelligence assets and contractors are used to guard its bases, it relies on military transportation, logistics and emergency medical evacuation and will not risk significant deployment in Afghanistan’s rural areas without U.S. troops nearby.

To sustain a viable civil-military Afghanistan-Pakistan cross-border counterterrorism partnership, the administration would need to invest another 3,500 U.S. troops – about a military intelligence brigade with supporting logistical and force protection forces – in the post-2014 mission. Without them, the American contingent will wind through 2015-16 increasingly unable to monitor, anticipate and counteract what certainly will be an evolving and complex set of transnational terrorists operating from western Pakistan and with aims on eastern Afghanistan.

The Problem of Even More Important Missions in South Asia

Beyond these shortfalls in properly resourcing his own aspirations, the President’s announcement was perhaps more inauspicious for what it didn’t mention: America’s enduring interests in three fundamental elements of South Asian security that must be safeguarded from Afghanistan through at least 2020. These include: preventing a proxy war in Afghanistan between two nuclear-armed states; maintaining of a disaster relief forward base; and sustaining a baseline for major crisis management in the likely event of the much feared implosion of Pakistan.

First, the administration has not fully appreciated risks of major proxy war between India and Pakistan in a post-2014 Afghanistan. Fundamentally, the war in Afghanistan is an Indo-Pakistan proxy conflict layered atop Afghanistan’s ethnic cleavages. In this decades-old struggle, NATO counterinsurgency forces are but a temporary participant. From Islamabad, America’s counterterrorism activities are perceived as tilting in favor of northern Afghan ethnicities and Indian long-term interests. In the wake of the administration’s announcement of a weak post-2014 U.S. military footprint, with virtually no presence beginning in 2017, Afghanistan’s flirtation with a prosperous and investment-rich India for defense support can only grow stronger. In turn, this will stoke its eastern neighbor’s paranoia.

From Pakistan’s perspective, Afghanistan under President Karzai has already favored India. Pakistan believes that India has established increasingly effective political and economic influence on Afghanistan by leveraging American naiveté, economic assistance amounting to some $1.4 billion already with another $500 million promised, and the historic hatred of Pakistan on the part of the non-Pashtun northern Afghan ethnic group. Pakistan’s perceptions persist – and grow – despite the fact that most outside observers believe them to be overblown. Nonetheless, the fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker has led Rawalpindi to persist in keeping a number of Afghan Taliban shuras in operational safe havens with Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI) patronage from various locations across western Pakistan.

The degree of Pakistan (ISI) influence over the Afghan Taliban and affiliated groups has long been suspected, but has become well-documented in recent years. As a Taliban regional commander in eastern Afghanistan said in 2008 (per an interview with South Asia journalist Matthew Waldman), “Every Afghan Taliban commander knows about the involvement of the ISI in the leadership but…[we] do not discuss it because we do not trust each other, and they are much stronger than us.” This is largely because Pakistan has a critical security interest in managing Afghan insurgent groups: it needs to constrain the ability of Taliban groups to fracture into an independent “Greater Pashtunistan” or “Greater Afghanistan” that could usurp Pakistani territory west of the Indus river – thereby endangering the very construct of Pakistan since 1971. As such, Pakistani management techniques exploit Taliban fissures and favor those Pashtun sub-groups deemed less likely to pursue agendas contrary to Pakistani security interests. Pakistan also clings to the narrative that Indian intelligence agents (often with Afghan, American or Israeli intelligence accomplices) are the instigators of all major militant and insurgent unrest found within Pakistan – to include that unrest generated by the Taliban.

From 2001, American leaders have misunderstood the decade-long campaign in Afghanistan as a struggle to empower a government in Kabul that could resist any return of al Qaeda’s core group of global jihadis. Understood in a South Asian security context, the paramaters of the conflict are very different. It is best viewed as it has always been discussed in Afghan, Pakistani and Indian circles: a Pakistani-supported Pashtun rebellion against a Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-dominated Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA) with links to New Delhi and Tehran. In Pakistan’s perceptions, Afghanistan’s government has only a fig leaf of Pashtun window-dressing in the person of President Karzai, a Popalzai Durrani Pashtun who is comprehensively mistrusted in Pakistan as too cozy with India. This will not change should Abdullah Abdullah, a half-Tajik, half-Pashtun Afghan, become the next president.

In this framework, the ANA is not a noble or quaint counterinsurgency force, but – for Pakistan and its proxies – it is potentially an Indian agent and a legitimate target for attack. Should the ANA unravel, Pakistanis fear it will metastasize into a more capable and hostile set of militia groups. A credible and durable American military presence deeply imbedded with the ANA in Afghanistan through 2020 is the only way to mitigate this unhappy regional outcome. Thus, for both Rawalpindi and New Delhi, ANA cohesion under a naïve, but relatively predictable American watch is preferable to the ANA’s autonomy and likely disintegration. The Obama administration either missed, or chose to ignore, this critical regional perspective on the ANA in making its May 2014 announcement. If it had paid more proper attention to it, it would have chosen to sustain U.S./Western operational advisors for Afghan units down to at least brigade level, and provided enough residual military force through 2020 to reduce the risks of ANA dissolution.

Second, the administration’s plan also discounts the value of land-based, forward presence air stations for effective disaster relief in a catastrophe-prone region. Beyond 2016, the President’s plan seems to leave no scope for preservation of a durable American military footprint at air bases in Bagram, Kabul or Kandahar. And yet these very airbases were critical intermediate way-stops for American disaster relief assistance operations after the Pakistani earthquake of 2005 and in the aftermath of the Pakistani flooding in the summer of 2010. Bagram airbase was also properly feted as the location where American preponderance and capabilities enabled the daring and successful cross-border raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The base proved a secure location to confirm bin Laden’s identity and provided an interim, secure waypoint for the trove of items taken from his Abbottabad compound. Given the kind of capabilities uniquely resident in a jointly-controlled, but U.S.-managed set of Afghan airbases, the administration’s post-2016 plan of an American embassy compound in Kabul, some form of a dual-use air base arrangement at Bagram and/or Kandahar and a preponderance of U.S. military crisis response assets offshore somewhere is a very poor substitute.

Finally, there is the other imminent crisis in the region: the fate of Pakistan. While Pakistan continues to limp along, signs of its future stability are not good. Its civilian government remains largely paralyzed, its civil-military relations are fractious, its popular culture is increasingly radicalized and intolerant of minority ethnic, religious and other groups, and the possibility for internal collapse continues to grow. No one knows when Pakistan will reach its crisis tipping point, but all agree that it grows more certain that one will occur absent a fundamental and unlikely change in its national trajectory. As a country of nearly 200 million people confronting a self-perceived growing menace from Afghan proxies linked to its implacable enemy to the east, Pakistan exhibits all the pre-conditions for a dramatic collapse that would engulf the entire region and demand massive external support.

The United States cannot “fix” Pakistan, but it can be better prepared to help the region mitigate against the very worst potential outcomes of a Pakistani implosion – massive refugee flows, rampant lawlessness and violence, the scourge of missing nuclear weapons, etc. But America can only be relevant in such an enormous crisis if it is poised, well-positioned, and actively engaged in crisis management planning in the one country in South Asia that will currently welcome its military presence –Afghanistan. Afghan bases would provide entry and access for American crisis relief – civilian and military – and a refuge for those assigned with the brutal task of cross-border assistance in Pakistan. American bases and forces in South Korea have been filling precisely such a crisis deterrence and crisis response role for at least the past 40 years. American interests in South Asia are no less demanding than in Northeast Asia. Thus, why not scope the residual American military presence in Afghanistan to posture for this undesirable but increasingly plausible outcome?

What to make of the Obama administration’s announcement on residual force presence in Afghanistan? At best, it is an unforced error. At worst, it is willful negligence of risk management in a region where the worst security dynamics are likely to be rekindled and unmonitored in the wake of a tepid American mission set during 2015-16, and a wholly absent American military presence beyond 2017.

A “barely serious” residual American military footprint would be one in the 15,000-16,000 range with another 7,000-7,500 allied partners from 2015-2020. This force would not be cheap, but it could be sustained in an American budget of $20B or less per year – a far cry from the nearly $125B spent in 2010 to address a Taliban menace to Afghan stability and an al Qaeda resurgence in western Pakistan.

Sadly, by lowballing the force presence America will leave in Afghanistan for its chosen two limited post-2014 missions and omitting consideration of at least three other vital regional security missions, the Obama administration is saddling Americans with unnecessary risk in an region of the world with unique and terrifying security conditions: two nuclear armed states that have fought each other four times since 1947 and that will accelerate a proxy clash in Afghanistan in the absence of sufficient outside investment; a certain future of natural disaster relief requirements; and the growing prospect of the implosion of a 200 million man state in an area woefully ill-prepared to manage such a calamity.


Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. He was also the Special Assistant for South Asian security matters for then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen from 2008-10, an Army regional support commander with responsibilities in Afghanistan from 2005-07, a Special Assistant to the U.S. CENTCOM Commander for South Asia security matters from 2004-05, and a Military Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2004. The views expressed are his own and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army (adapted by WOTR)