Resetting U.S.-Afghan Relations


While the highly publicized U.S. reset with Russia ended with the annexation of Crimea, this week the United States will reset another important international relationship that portends a much more positive outcome. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, are visiting Washington to meet with President Obama, Congress, and other policymakers and strategists. This is the first visit by an Afghan president since former President Hamid Karzai’s final trip in January 2013, and offers a much-needed opportunity to improve the often-troubled relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.

Ghani is in many ways the anti-Karzai. As someone who was educated in the West, worked on development issues at the World Bank, and served as the minister of finance in the Afghan transitional government from 2002-2004, he represents everything Karzai is not – a practical Western technocrat with deep ties to the United States and international institutions.

Ghani will be a more effective strategic partner for the United States than Karzai, whose often erratic and unpredictable behavior seriously undermined U.S. cooperation with Afghanistan in recent years. Ghani offers a fresh outlook. Since his inauguration in October, he has worked aggressively to improve the relationship with the United States by easing operational restrictions on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and signaling his interest in a much closer partnership. He has similarly reached out to Pakistan and China to mend fences that had been shredded during the 12-year Karzai regime. Ghani has also taken measures to address corruption and advance the role of Afghan women. These efforts mark a long overdue transformation in both the domestic and international priorities of Kabul.

During this visit, Ghani’s foremost goal will be to continue rebuilding the relationship with the Obama administration and Congress. Ghani recognizes that without the support of both, Afghanistan’s future will unquestionably be dark. He has repeatedly stated that he wants significant U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan well into the future to ensure continuing stability, a move that would require both presidential and congressional support. And he desperately needs Congress to continue the lifeblood of funding it provides for Afghanistan, without which the security forces and domestic economy would almost certainly crumble.

The Obama administration shares Ghani’s strong interest in improving bilateral relations. After almost six years of increasingly contentious interactions, Obama and Karzai grew to be at loggerheads on everything from the scope of U.S. military operations to the roots of the Taliban insurgency, leading to a relationship that was frosty on its best days. Obama will be keen to strike a new relationship with Ghani, and the public statements surrounding this week’s visit will likely trumpet their new cooperative partnership.

But Obama will also be wary of the nearly infinite set of demands that characterizes any relationship with an Afghan leader or state. Afghanistan relies almost wholly on foreign aid and assistance. It only takes in $2.3 billion in annual revenue, but it spends $4.1 billion a year – expenditures that do not include the Afghan National Security Forces, which cost approximately $6 billion a year and are nearly completely supported by the United States and other international donors. Obama’s meeting with Ghani will undoubtedly emphasize that America’s commitment in dollars and troops cannot be open-ended, and that the Afghan government must take on greater responsibility for its own resources and its security.

Obama’s ongoing drawdown plans for U.S. forces in Afghanistan are not only consistent with that outlook, but also reflect the depth of his longstanding commitment to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. Only 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan today, which represents the number called for in the drawdown plan that the president announced last May. That plan also calls for the number of U.S. troops to be cut to 5,500 by the end of 2015, and for only a few hundred troops to remain at the U.S. embassy by the end of 2016.

However, the world has changed since the president’s announcement. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with offshoots erupting in Libya, Tunisia and even possibly southern Afghanistan has increased the threats to the United States emanating from the greater Middle East. ISIL does not currently pose a serious threat in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the potentially destabilizing impact of removing all U.S. troops from the eastern flank of the region. The rise of ISIL in Iraq has also taught a hard lesson to policy experts in Washington about the risks of leaving a vacuum once U.S. troops depart contested regions.

Moreover, in Afghanistan, the Taliban shows no sign of backing away from an offensive strategy that will continue to put immense pressure on Afghan security forces in the coming years – forces whose effectiveness still depend on U.S. military enablers and other support. Removing all U.S. troops by the end of 2016 risks undercutting Kabul’s ability to address this still very capable insurgent threat. And Kabul’s warming relations with Islamabad and the nascent glimmers of interest in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban do not yet offer much hope that the conflict will be resolved by then.

Given these facts, the Obama administration will use Ghani’s visit as an opportunity to alter the pace of the U.S. drawdown. Reports indicate he will announce that the current 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan into next year. But at the same time, he will most likely reaffirm his goal to end the U.S. military presence by the end of 2016.

Slowing the withdrawal timeline makes sound military sense. Drawing down to 5,500 U.S. troops by the end of this year would require removing U.S. forces from major bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad, and turning them over to Afghan control. These critical bases are directly on the frontlines of the fight against the Taliban, and are respectively located in its traditional heartland in the south and along its principal border infiltration route from Pakistan in the east. Removing all American forces from these bases would remove critical intelligence and strike capabilities nested in the very areas the Taliban most seek to dominate – and could thus accelerate the fall of these vulnerable areas to Taliban control.

This policy change also meets immediate Afghan concerns and subtly acknowledges some lessons of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, while still keeping the president’s options open and reaffirming his pledge to end the war during his presidency. That will enable him to maintain support from the members of his own party who are keen to end the nation’s longest war, yet also allay concerns of those in both parties who see the danger of a vacuum if the United States fully leaves Afghanistan – especially in light of the increasing regional threat posed by ISIL and growing instability across the entire region.

Ghani’s visit this week provides the ideal moment to reset a relationship that for too long has been dominated by both mistrust and often-sharp rhetoric on both sides. Yet an announcement this week to slow the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan will only delay the real decision and its strategic consequences for two more years. In 2016, Obama will face a very tough choice: stay true to his goal of ending U.S. involvement in the Afghan war, or re-think his strategy in light of threats that almost assuredly will still dominate the entire region. But for now, keeping U.S. troops at their current levels and then re-evaluating future plans is the prudent choice.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.