TSG IntelBrief: Calls for Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Response v. Reaction
March 27, 2012
As of late March 2012, the recent events in Afghanistan — specifically the protests outside U.S. military bases over the burning of the Qurans and the shooting of Afghan civilians attributed to a U.S. military member — have led many in the United States to call for an early and expeditious exit. While such a reaction may assuage the understandable emotional fervor that inevitably emerges from such circumstances, it remains just that: a reaction, not a response. An immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops would, in fact, be a short-sighted reaction that ignores not only the logistical difficulties associated with any pullout, but also the substantial strategic implications. Getting the transition out of Afghanistan right is arguably as important as having had the right plan for the war from the outset.
Progress in Afghanistan over the past ten years has been, at best, uneven; nonetheless, where overarching objectives have been realized, they have been multifaceted. For example, in addition to building a standing army where none previously existed, significant advances have also been made in critical civilian sectors, specifically health, telecommunication, education and banking.
The Deep Challenges of a Withdrawal
President Obama’s 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan, it should be noted, was accompanied by an emphasis on a “”civilian surge,”” one involving teams of civilian mentors working to create and develop capacity in Afghanistan. That civilian emphasis, however, has diminished over time to the point where the focus of the current debate over withdrawal plans has been narrowed to only the military aspect of the drawdown. Even then, the prevailing narrative in Afghanistan and the United States is characterized by a tactical-level approach driven by near-term thinking.
Those advocating for a precipitous withdrawal may be underestimating the considerable logistical demands of bringing 80,000 troops and millions of tons of weapons and equipment back to the U.S. To illustrate the myriad details that must be adequately addressed before a pull-out could even commence, withdrawal routes, fees, and associated arrangements will need to be satisfactorily negotiated with difficult partners such as Pakistan, Russia and its Central Asian neighbors. This effort alone could literally require months, if not years, to complete.
Expanding Requirements/Contracting Resources
Currently, Afghan forces are responsible for the security of approximately 12 major cities. The withdrawal of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops will immediately expand that responsibility to include protecting the population in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and 370 districts while also keeping military pressure on the Taliban. But as this mandate grows, the resources to support it will be diminishing. Conservative estimates suggest that, at a minimum, the military spending necessary to meet post-withdrawal security requirements would be as much as US$4 billion, an amount equal to the country’s entire annual budget.
Afghan troops already face the prospect of up to 30 percent cuts in their numbers, budget and mentors, an outcome driven primarily by a need for financial belt-tightening in NATO countries as well as Afghanistan. Such financial considerations — both inside and outside the country — have shifted the focus of discussion about stability policies from security requirements to fiscal austerity measures.
President Karzai complicated matters further when, under domestic pressure, he called for accelerating the withdrawal timetable by one full year — from 2014 to 2013 — potentially forcing underprepared Afghan troops to take on insurgents emboldened by the withdrawal, which they see as the defeat of ISAF forces.
Afghan forces also lack critical equipment and combat logistics capability, including air transport, surveillance, battlefield medical support and close air support capabilities. ISAF troops currently provide some of these capabilities to Afghan troops, but a precipitous withdrawal would almost certainly jeopardize that.
Sustaining the Afghan forces at current levels will require between $4 -5 billion annually. This is a fraction of the nearly US$100 billion required annually to maintain the current ISAF troop levels. Afghan troops would be assigned the daunting task of meeting the same security objectives previously under the purview of ISAF troops, but at only a small fraction of the cost. Viewed from this perspective, the fiscal demands on the U.S. and its partners would appear far less discouraging, especially given that such an investment in Afghan forces could be viewed as a useful deterrent against the Taliban, who would have little incentive to negotiate a peaceful agreement — or adhere to its provisions — if Afghan forces were under-equipped, underprepared or insufficient.
The Strategic Costs of Withdrawal
It must be understood that strategic costs in situations such as this have a cognitive component that is just as real and certainly just as enduring as the political and financial elements. Among the Afghans, there is once again a growing sense of abandonment, one they feel they’ve experienced twice previously: first after the Soviet withdrawal, then again in 2003, when resources were diverted to Iraq. This sense of abandonment is already fueling a number of negative trends. Factions that have laid down their weapons and became invested in re-building the country’s political and physical infrastructure are beginning to rearm themselves. At the same time, enormous amounts of much-needed capital is rapidly flowing out of the country in anticipation of the worsening situation in a post-ISAF climate.
A deliberate and timely exit by ISAF troops and the concomitant investment in the capabilities of Afghan troops may be the only realistic strategies to help support a country on the brink of stability from falling into the abyss of chaos.
The void of certainty over the withdrawal schedule will lead to a crisis of confidence in the stability of the country going forward. Gains in the vital domains of national security and the civilian sector will come under increasing pressure with the possibility of substantial reversals.
A considerable risk exists for a resurgence by both the Taliban and possibly al-Qaeda as both groups are likely to be emboldened by the prospect of Afghan forces that lack capability and support. The effect of such a scenario will manifest itself in disregard for potential outcomes of the Qatar talks or similar reconciliation process.
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