So the President Wants Out of Afghanistan: What Happens Next?
Earlier this week, I took a look back at a congressionally mandated assessment of the war in Afghanistan that I led nearly five years ago. Yesterday, reports emerged that President Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon to develop plans to withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, potentially as early as this spring. Given this news, it is worth revisiting a part of our assessment that I did not discuss previously: our consideration of two withdrawal scenarios. In the first, the U.S. military and its coalition partners withdraw their advisors and cease to provide operational support to Afghanistan’s security forces. In the second, they also cease providing financial support to Afghanistan’s government. Of note, in both scenarios we assumed that America’s coalition partners would follow whatever course of action the United States took.
Regarding the first scenario, we wrote:
We conclude that if the United States and NATO do not maintain a training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, the absence of advisors … is likely to result in a downward spiral of [Afghan security force] capabilities—along with security in Afghanistan—unless [Afghanistan] can find other patrons to fill the resulting “enabler vacuum.”
We further assessed that the speed of this downward spiral would likely be most strongly dependent on the level of continued international community financial support. This is because the vast majority of the funding for the salaries and operating costs of Afghanistan’s security forces comes from the United States and its partners. We also concluded that many leaders of the country’s security forces would likely soldier on even in the absence of advisors and operational support, as they are patriotic individuals who have been fighting the Taliban for decades. However, we assessed that among the rank-and-file, the loss of advisory and operational support such as airpower or logistics could result in increased rates of desertion and defection to the Taliban, and possibly even unit fragmentation or dissolution.
Regarding the second scenario, we wrote:
… this was the one point on which every one of our interviewees agreed: The loss of funding, or even a too-rapid decline in funding, to [Afghanistan’s security forces] would carry with it a high likelihood of increased desertion rates, fragmentation or splintering of [security force] units, or defection of units to the insurgency.
We concluded that the continued influx of international financial assistance was the single most important factor preventing the centripetal forces of Afghanistan’s various power centers from pulling the country apart. Therefore, we found that the absence of these funds for Afghanistan’s security forces and the government more broadly would result in another civil war in Afghanistan, unless the country could find another patron to fill the funding void (e.g., China or Russia).
So what does this mean in regards to the president’s order for a drawdown? Obviously the devil will be in the details, and that’s what Pentagon planners are surely working on right now. But broadly speaking, I have four thoughts.
First, the 7,000 troops would most likely come from those units performing and supporting the advisory mission in Afghanistan. The Pentagon will assuredly prioritize keeping those troops conducting and supporting the counter-terrorism mission against the likes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – Khorasan in place, as well as those providing the currently unprecedented level of air support to Afghanistan’s security forces. Under this scenario, there is a good chance that a sizeable fraction of Afghanistan’s security forces would continue to fight on, though as our assessment concluded, the abrupt departure of most of the troops advising and supporting Afghanistan’s security forces may result in increased desertions and possibly even defections to the Taliban.
However, as I pointed out earlier, Afghanistan’s security forces have already been steadily losing ground to the Taliban, even with substantial support from the U.S. military and its partners. Which means it is likely they would not be able to hold out militarily on their own against the Taliban for long. In my conversations on this scenario over the past five years, the consensus seems to be that if the United States completely withdrew its advisory forces, the resultant downward spiral would occur over the course of six months to two years. If the Pentagon is able to leave some advisors behind even after removing 7,000 troops, the pace of decline may be slower — but it will still occur.
Second, we do not yet know if Trump will also order a reduction of funding for Afghanistan. Given his past comments about wasting money in the country, it seems likely he would push for some amount of funding reduction to go along with reducing the number of troops there. While Congress appropriates the funds for Afghanistan’s security forces (and did so to the tune of $5.2 billion for fiscal year 2019), the president could direct the Defense Department not to spend those funds, thereby de facto cutting the Afghanistan budget. Under a scenario in which this also happens, the effects in Afghanistan would be more severe. The biggest cost drivers of Afghanistan’s security forces are its people and the Afghan Air Force. Thus, any significant reductions in cost would either result in a smaller force or one that’s been hollowed out (the same size, but with much less capability). Either way, the downward spiral of security in Afghanistan would be accelerated.
Third, those who think that removing these forces is okay because it will not affect the U.S. military’s counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan are mistaken. This notion has been explored numerous times in the past (it was one of the options President Barack Obama considered early in his presidency) and repeatedly discarded. The reasons for this have largely centered on fears that, in the absence of persistent advising and support, Afghanistan’s security forces would fail to keep the Taliban at bay and our military counter-terrorism forces would soon find themselves surrounded by insurgents. I see no compelling evidence today that would lead me to say such fears are not still warranted. Thus, under this scenario, the United States would have to fundamentally re-examine its counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, in terms of the forces and approaches involved.
Fourth, the announcement of this drawdown has the potential to absolutely undermine the still-nascent but promising talks with the Taliban that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been working so hard to get moving. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. One potential option would be to devise the drawdown to occur in a phased manner tied to progress in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. The latter have repeatedly insisted that a precondition to engaging in direct negotiations with the Afghan government is for the United States to announce a timetable for withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. This option would therefore seek to grant that concession to the Taliban in exchange for them agreeing to direct talks and a timetable for progress in negotiations with the government of Afghanistan. If such an agreement could be obtained soon, the first drawdown option could be to turn off the impending deployment of the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), which is currently scheduled to fill the gap that was created by the recent redeployment of the 1st SFAB. However, the abruptness of the president’s announcement may make getting the Taliban to agree to such an arrangement very difficult, and potentially impossible.
In an ideal world, the Pentagon would find a way to convince the president to follow a path akin to this last option — one that would both satisfy his desire to chart a path out of Afghanistan while also avoiding the withdrawal scenarios we explored in our assessment. However, the rashness of this announcement and its seeming complete lack of connectivity to the rest of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan means that the scenarios we explored in our assessment will likely come into play. Which is to say, the results will certainly be bad for Afghanistan and America’s ability to pursue its interests there. Depending on how fast and severe the cuts in troops and funding are, they may even be catastrophic.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Center for Stability and Development, and the Special Operations Program, at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, to include numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.