For a leader who has been criticized for trying to rush out of wars to satisfy campaign promises, President Obama has been relatively resolute in Afghanistan. To be sure, he reduced U.S. forces there faster than some (including us) believed optimal starting in July 2011 — but only after having tripled the number of troops there during the first two years of his presidency. And the drawdown did not begin until he worked with coalition partners at the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon to extend the mission from 2011 to 2014, a horizon extended again last year. Beyond that, while he declared an end to the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of last year, he also authorized Americans to continue to participate in numerous difficult and dangerous operations, including counterterrorism activities in support of Afghan forces, when needed. Some 10,000 U.S. troops continue the fight in support of what is principally now an Afghan-led and Afghan-dominated mission.
Unfortunately, having displayed such patience, the president is now assuming that neither his successor nor the American public has the desire — or stomach — to continue even a modest U.S. effort in Afghanistan after 2016. Obama’s plan is to remove all operational combat forces from the country by the end of his tenure. Only a small training mission and embassy guard operation would continue. This plan raises considerable questions.
The right approach is for Obama to protect our investment in Afghanistan and to hand off to his successor military forces and tools that will still be critically needed in 2017 and beyond. We can schedule an end to our role in that nation’s conflict, but we cannot schedule an end to the war there or an end to the threat from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or other extremist elements of the global jihad. Moreover, the Afghan political leadership and public overwhelmingly want us to stay.
We went to Afghanistan for a compelling reason: to ensure that Afghanistan never again served as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda, as it did when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were planned there under the Taliban. The importance of that mission continues.
Although al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has been seriously degraded over the years, its remaining leaders and kindred organizations remain ensconced in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan’s tribal areas and in some Afghan communities. We have no realistic way to deal with threats in this region without bases in eastern Afghanistan; the Indian Ocean is too far away, and we have no good options for alternative land bases. The frequency of U.S. action against extremists in this area may decline somewhat; indeed, it already has. But the need for close surveillance and occasional kinetic missions cannot be ruled out. Indeed, if extremists knew that we had deprived ourselves of such capabilities, they would be even more likely to seek sanctuary in this strategic region.
Beyond our own global counterterrorism exigencies, Afghanistan itself still needs help. The situation there is not hopeless, but it is serious. Helmand province is at risk in the south, as are Kunduz and other areas in the nation’s north. The east, always troubled and always threatened by the Haqqani network based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, is still turbulent. And Kabul still suffers periodic attacks, such as the recent assault on the parliament.
But all is not lost. Far from it. Kabul is much safer than most cities in war zones — and for that matter, a number of cities in Latin America. Indeed, Afghan forces successfully repelled the attempt on the parliament, killing all the attackers. Kandahar, the original haven of the Taliban, is under government control. Mazar-e Sharif in the north and Herat in the west are doing reasonably well. The country’s ring road and other major highways are generally secure. As the Pentagon’s June “Report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” put it, “The resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat,” but “Although the Taliban spread its footprint across the country, it suffered considerable casualties and did not accomplish any of its major strategic or operational objectives in 2014.” To their enormous credit, Afghan soldiers and police continue to sustain many of the gains of recent years, even after NATO forces have drawn down by 90 percent.
But Afghan forces have paid a heavy price, losing several thousand personnel a year. And this year’s casualties are at least 50 percent greater than last year’s, according to U.S. officials in Afghanistan. The Taliban is testing our Afghan partners. So far, they are holding, but the situation is fraught.
In these circumstances, we should be wary of removing those key enablers — in the form of U.S. air power, intelligence, combat advisers and Special Operations forces — that Afghanistan still needs from us. Indeed, the Pentagon report called into question the ability of Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban without coalition support. We believe these concerns are justified. Going to a “zero option” next year would be playing roulette with Afghanistan’s future.
The right approach for the United States is not to pull out next year but to keep several bases and several thousand U.S. and other NATO-coalition troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. And the NATO Summit in Poland next summer could be the vehicle for gaining coalition agreement on a further extension of the mission. In fact, the summit could help advance the idea that rather than conceiving of such a commitment as an interminable nation-building exercise, the right way to think of it would be as an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, a front-line state in the struggle against Islamist extremists.
Yes, such an operation would have real American costs — perhaps $5 billion to $10 billion a year in U.S. military expenses, on top of $2 billion to $3 billion to help sustain Afghan forces at roughly current size, and undoubtedly some U.S. casualties. But compared with the investment to date, of well over 2,000 American lives and nearly $1 trillion in expense, and compared with the specter of another major terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland devised or launched out of a South Asian terrorist sanctuary, such costs are bearable — and the right call for this nation.
David Petraeus, a retired Army general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, is chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.