7 Things to Know About the U.S.’s Future in Afghanistan

For one: The U.S. is planning to bring home the troops, but not all of them.

US Army soldiers attached to the 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 Infantry walk in line behind a designated mine-detecting device operator at Naja-bien village, notorious for IED caused injuries and deaths, in Panjwai district during a morning operation to find and destroy bomb traps made from IED's on September 23, 2012.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
March 13, 2014, 1 a.m.

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?

Not ex­actly.

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.

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