American combat operations in Afghanistan officially conclude at year's end, but does that mean the war is totally over and all the troops are coming home?
The post-2014 U.S. role in Afghanistan is outlined by a security agreement. Washington has all but abandoned hope that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the pact, but policymakers are still counting on Karzai's successor to sign the agreement — which could allow some U.S. troops to stay in the country — after Afghan elections in April.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commands the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday — and will be back on Capitol Hill Thursday morning — in part to outline what war will look like after "the war" is over. Here are the key points:
1. How many U.S. troops will stay in the country?
The Pentagon expects anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan past the end of the year. American troops would comprise about two-thirds of this follow-on force. A few thousand more U.S. troops — likely special operations forces — could be joining them to conduct counterterrorism operations.
2. What would these troops be doing?
The U.S. and NATO force would train, advise, and assist the local Afghan forces. Those forces are growing more adept at leading security operations, but they still need international help to become a functioning modern army and police force, Dunford said.
By 2015, the Afghan Air Force won't be fully developed. The intelligence enterprise won't be fully functioning. The military's special operations capabilities will be lacking. The security ministries, Dunford added, need assistance "in tasks such as planning, programming, budgeting, acquisition, and human resource management so they can provide tactical units the support they require to function."
The Afghan forces "will clearly be in the lead in the fight," Dunford said. "The only operations that I would envision us conducting in 2015 against an enemy would be counterterrorism operations."
3. How long would the U.S. and NATO troops stay?
That's unclear. The security agreement originally negotiated between Kabul and Washington would last until the end of 2024 and beyond. Still, Karzai's still-unknown successor might not keep that agreement as written, and international troops might not stay that entire time anyway. Dunford demurred on answering this "complicated" question at the hearing.
4. Are the Afghan forces ready for this transition?
Dunford, for his part, has faith in their abilities. "After watching the Afghan forces respond to a variety of challenges since they took the lead [in security operations] in June, I don't believe the Taliban insurgency represents an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan or to the Afghan security forces," he said. "I'm also confident that they can secure the upcoming presidential election and the nation's first democratic transfer of power."
But there are some reasons to doubt the Afghan forces. There were 14 "green-on-blue" attacks last year — that is, Afghan policy or military forces attacking coalition partners. That's fewer than the 48 incidents the year before, but, as Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, put it, "it's unbelievable." At the committee hearing, Manchin described meeting a young man wounded in combat. "His story, it tore me apart. [The man] said, 'I was shot, and I was shot by the person I trained for six months,' " Manchin said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has also expressed concerns about Afghanistan's security forces as the U.S. phases out its mission. The local army and police "have shown progress in their ability to clear insurgents from contested areas but have exhibited problems holding cleared areas long-term," Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said in prepared testimony earlier this month. They "struggle due to the lack of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," and the capacity to combat roadside bombs.
5. With Karzai's refusal to sign the pact, how likely is it that U.S. troops will stay?
Pretty likely, despite Karzai's unexpected course change after more than a year of negotiations with the U.S. on the security agreement. The Afghan people appear to be in favor of a lasting agreement with the U.S., and every Afghan presidential candidate so far has indicated they would be willing to sign it. "Any of them would likely be a more reliable partner than President Karzai," Dunford testified.
Still, without a new security agreement with a new president, the U.S. will not leave any troops in the country. The Pentagon is preparing contingency plans to withdraw all the remaining 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year's end, just in case.
6. What's the latest the U.S. can wait to sign this pact?
The U.S. has until July before crunch time. "If we have a new president by August, I'm comfortable that we'll be able to maintain the options through that period of time without any difficulty," Dunford said.
Still, if there's no agreement by September, the risk of being unprepared for either a complete withdrawal or leaving a follow-on force increases significantly.
"That's simply a function of the tasks that have to be accomplished and how many days it needs to accomplish those tasks," Dunford said. There are some serious logistical hurdles of planning a follow-up mission to the Afghanistan war, such as coordinating with allies and figuring out what infrastructure to keep in the country. If the mission will instead end altogether, the U.S. still needs time to pull all its troops and equipment from the country safely.
7. What happens if the security agreement is never signed?
Paraphrasing Dunford, the terrorists win.
The U.S. wants a future counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaida from regenerating and carrying out attacks on the West. "Without continued counterterrorism pressure, an emboldened al-Qaida will not only begin to physically reconstitute but they'll also exploit their perceived victory to boost recruitment, fundraising, and morale," Dunford said. And the Afghan security forces, if left without U.S. advisers, will "begin to deteriorate," Dunford said, along with the security environment. "The only debate is the pace of that deterioration."
Still, with the majority of Americans in some polls urging a faster pullout from Afghanistan than President Obama is planning, a complete U.S. withdrawal may earn some cheers from the general public.