Obama repeats his Iraq mistake in Afghanistan

As the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the terrorist takeover of northern Iraq, one consequence of the crisis should be clear: There is an urgent need to reassess the White House’s recently announced plans for Afghanistan — specifically, its pledge that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2016, other than a small contingent attached to our embassy in Kabul.

Of course, Afghanistan is not Iraq; there are key differences between the two countries. But there are also parallels and lessons from America’s experience in both wars that we ignore at our peril.

As with Iraq three years ago, the White House has justified the proposed Afghan pullout as “ending” one of the wars it inherited. But as in Iraq, the planned exit will do no such thing; rather, if carried forward, the complete departure of U.S. forces threatens to set the stage for the unraveling of everything our military has fought and sacrificed to achieve in Afghanistan, just as we now confront in Iraq.

In particular, the Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan significantly raises the risk that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will be able to regenerate in the region where the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were plotted, with dangerous implications for the security of the United States and its allies.

The United States has been able to degrade the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan in recent years. But there is every reason to think those gains will be reversed unless we keep up the pressure. That will be very difficult in the absence of a military presence on the ground in Afghanistan — just as we have seen in Iraq, where al-Qaeda-linked networks were decimated during the 2007-08 surge, only to return with a vengeance after U.S. troops left in late 2011.

Likewise, as in Iraq, the complete withdrawal of our troops will remove a critical stabilizing factor from Afghanistan’s still-fragile politics, create a vacuum that encourages neighboring states to step up unhelpful interference and heighten the danger that the country will slide back into civil war.

To make matters worse, the administration is also planning severe cuts in U.S. funding for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — compounding the risk of a terrorist resurgence. Unlike oil-rich Iraq, Afghanistan cannot afford to sustain sufficient security forces on its own.

The number of authorized Afghan soldiers and police — which has grown to approximately 352,000 since President Obama came to office — is slated to be reduced to 228,500 by 2018. This means cutting one-third of the Afghan end strength that we have slowly and methodically built up, and discharging more than 100,000 military-age males onto the streets of Afghanistan. It flies in the face of common sense to think the United States can simultaneously remove all of our own forces while dramatically downsizing the ranks of our Afghan allies without courting Iraq-like disaster.

This in fact was the conclusion of a congressionally mandated independent assessment this year by the nonpartisan Center for Naval Analyses, which bluntly warned that the assumptions behind the planned ANSF drawdown were “faulty” and that proceeding with it will jeopardize U.S. policy goals in Afghanistan.

The report also argues that “international support (to include the presence of [foreign military] advisors) will be required to address the gaps in [ANSF] mobility, logistics, air support, and intelligence gathering through at least 2018.” This obviously will not be possible if all U.S. troops leave by the end of 2016.

What makes the president’s timetable for Afghanistan especially problematic is that, by pulling the last troops from Afghanistan during his final days in office, he risks bequeathing a disaster in the making to his successor, hobbling the ability of our next commander in chief to manage a vital region of the world from Day One.

The alternative to the administration’s complete withdrawl is not to keep tens of thousands of Americans in Afghanistan fighting forever. This is a false choice; a more cautious middle way is possible.

The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan can be responsibly scaled back between now and 2016, as Afghan troops are already increasingly bearing the burden of the fight themselves and as Americans withdraw from combat.

But rather than removing the entirety of America’s military footprint from the country on an artificial timetable, the United States can slow the pace of the drawdown, leaving a residual coalition force on a handful of bases around the country — as our commanders on the ground reportedly originally preferred. Decisions on the next stages of transition can then be left to the next administration, informed by conditions on the ground.

At the same time, the Obama administration should invest the political capital necessary to sustain the current ANSF end strength.

While Washington’s actions or inactions matter hugely, decisions by local leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq will be decisive. Here to Afghans can learn from the missteps of their counterparts in Baghdad — foremost the need to govern inclusively and to seek a long-term U.S. security partnership.

This year, Obama described the presidency as a relay race, and in Afghanistan, he still has the opportunity to leave his successor a dramatically better situation than he inherited — a presidential legacy of which he and his national security team can be rightfully proud. The alternative is to rush to the exits and risk repeating in Afghanistan mistakes that have contributed to the calamity we now face in Iraq.

Joseph I. Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut, is senior counsel at the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman. Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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