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US rethinks withdrawal, saying Afghanistan ‘cannot handle the fight alone’

Defense secretary’s call for NATO allies to ‘remain flexible’ casts doubt on Obama’s promise to end US involvement

After a tumultuous few weeks for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Thursday that the U.S. has asked its NATO allies to “remain flexible and to consider the possibility of making adjustments” to its two-and-a-half-year-old plan for rapidly withdrawing troops from the country.

It was the first public indication by President Barack Obama's administration that it was reconsidering the withdrawal plan, which would pull all but a skeleton force of 1,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. It would also effectively allow Obama to declare an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan after 15 years.

Carter’s comments come just days after the U.S. military accidentally bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders while trying to help Afghan forces clear Taliban fighters from the city of Kunduz. The incident was troubling by itself — 22 civilians were killed, prompting war crimes accusations against the U.S. — but so, too, was the context. The Taliban surge in Kunduz, which was briefly captured by insurgents late last month, marked the group’s first takeover of a major city since being thrown from power by the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The setbacks have been a strategic and public relations nightmare for Obama, whose ability to keep his promises to end U.S. involvement in the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan are now in doubt.

After withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, he was then forced to send back military “advisers” when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stormed the city of Mosul last year. In Afghanistan, Obama ended combat operations and has announced plans to withdraw the bulk of American troops before he leaves office, but setbacks like Kunduz have made that less likely to happen.

The reality is that after 14 years of American military assistance, Afghans still “cannot handle the fight alone," said Gen. John Campbell, who leads the current 14,000-man NATO force in Afghanistan, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. When Obama made the decision to withdraw troops, he “did not take into account the changes over the past two years,” Campbell said, including a strengthened Taliban, the rise of an ISIL “province” in the country and last year's election of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been more cooperative with the U.S. military than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

American air support and special operations remain essential to keeping the Taliban in check, Campbell said. “It will take time for [the Afghans] to build their human capital” in terms of logistics and managing their forces in the field, he said. That means, according to Campbell, that Afghanistan will need international assistance “well beyond this year.”

Exactly what the post-2016 NATO presence in Afghanistan will look like appears to be up in the air. Carter did not provide details on Thursday, but a recent Washington Post report suggested that the White House was considering a figure of around 5,000 troops, expressly for “counterterrorism” purposes. Campbell, for his part, has previously proposed keeping 8,000, barely paring down the current 9,800.

But public debate over troop levels, which tend to be more a barometer of “how enthusiastic one feels about the war effort,” is only part of the equation, said Stephen Biddle, an expert on the Afghan war and a professor at George Washington University. “My money would be on Obama leaving a non-trivial troop presence when he leaves office, but whether it’s 3,000 more or less is not going to be decisive to the outcome of the war.”

An embassy-level force, as the 1,000-troop plan is called, could restrict the tempo of U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban, Biddle said, but what really matters is Congressional funding to the Afghan government. Kabul’s revenue stream is nowhere near adequate to support its military, but American lawmakers may be less inclined to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into the country once the U.S. war has ended.

In that light, the ongoing battle over Kunduz could be a blessing in disguise for the Afghan military, Biddle said. “You can make the argument that the fall of Kunduz would increase the likelihood that Congress keeps the money flowing. The fall of Mosul [in Iraq] was an extremely wrenching experience for the administration, so it’s plausible they’ll look at Kunduz and say, ‘Oh no, not again.’”

The stakes, of course, are high. A major defeat like Kunduz could send tremors through Afghanistan’s military, which has been plagued by low morale and high absenteeism since the beginning of its fight against the Taliban in 2001. Some analysts have argued that it is vulnerable to a morale crisis similar to the one that took hold in Iraq last year after its American partners withdrew: As ISIL fighters approached Mosul in June 2014, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and stripped off their uniforms to avoid detection.

On a wider level, the instability in Iraq and Afghanistan has called into question Obama’s conviction that U.S. interests abroad are best achieved by arming and training local partners, rather than through armed invasion. In a speech at West Point in 2014, Obama had called for a strategy “that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments. We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”

But he has been criticized for being too eager to test that strategy. In Iraq, critics say, Obama abandoned the government army, which cost Washington $25 billion to build, and is now looking at a situation where Shia militias, backed by Iran, are the most powerful force on the ground against ISIL. 

In Afghanistan, there is recent evidence that U.S.-backed forces have, in fact, stirred the “local resentments” Obama intended to avoid. Last month, a New York Times investigation unearthed evidence of the rampant abuse of young boys by allied Afghan commanders — the same men entrusted to keep the country secure once U.S. forces pull out. According to some village elders, the practice was helping push people into the arms of the Taliban.

These and other setbacks point to a need for emphasis on the roots of conflict, analysts say. “Training is a necessary but not sufficient way to get you to the point of creating a robust fighting force,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the C.I.A. and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with the New York Times, “because ultimately, militaries fight over political issues."    

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