President Obama is announcing later today that the US will be keeping 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office in January 2017, five times the number originally planned. In addition, throughout most of 2016, the figure will be 9,800. They will be stationed in Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. This is an unfortunate development, and it leaves open the possibility of his successor re-entering combat in the country will a pre-positioned force.
Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan at the Washington Post have reported “The post-2016 force would still be focused on training and advising the Afghan army, with a special emphasis on its elite counterterror forces. The United States would also maintain a significant counterterrorism capability of drones and Special Operations forces to strike al-Qaeda and other militants who may be plotting attacks against the United States.”
At the same time, the BBC is citing a National Security Council statement that reads in part “This announcement in no way changes the fact that our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, and we will continue to undertake only two narrow missions: counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting our Afghan partners.”
At first blush, this might appear to be a knee-jerk response to the temporary success that the Taliban had in capturing the city of Kunduz for several days. However, it appears that Washington has considered a slower withdrawal from Afghanistan since March, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah visited Washington.
An official speaking to Reuters anonymously in advance of the formal announcement stated, “The Afghan government is very comfortable with this commitment. They’ve been indicating a desire for this commitment for some time.”
The WaPo report confirmed this. Mohammad Daud Sultanzoy, a presidential candidate in 2014, who is now allied with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was quoted as saying, “It’s very positive in light of the continued problems that this region is facing. Our security have shown the will and capability to fight, but we still need the support of our allies, especially the United States.”
Given the resurgence of the Taliban in the country as well as the threat of the Islamic State gaining a foothold there, Washington had considerable cause to to reconsider the initial plan. “Certainly we’re watching and seeing how the Afghan security forces engage quite tenaciously in the fight in Kunduz,” Reuters was told. Not tenaciously enough to avoid the change in US plans it would appear.
This journal maintained in the earliest part of the 14-year-old Afghan conflict that the US should not engage in anything more than a special forces hunt for Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, and this journal consistently argued for a combat force in the 4-6000 range. It would be sufficient to hunt those who would do America and its allies harm, but it would not be so huge as to let the Afghan government off the hook for the security of the country it governs.
At this stage, however, this larger force should now have less hunting to do than in the 2002-2005 period when Al-Qaeda was a paramilitary entity. That it has as much or more merely demonstrates what a disaster the Bush policy of “draining the swamp” and nation-building was. The extra manpower will count as a significant failure of the Obama administration in ending America’s hamfisted policies in Central Asia, right along with its inability to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.