U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan officially ended last December, but about 9,800 American troops remain in the country, where they’re training and supporting the Afghan military.
The question of when — or if — those troops will leave Afghanistan, will be a main focus of meetings between President Barack Obama and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week. Obama has planned to bring the number down to 5,600 by the end of 2015, and to leave only a small number of soldiers to protect the U.S Embassy by the end of his term — but plans may be changing.
Ghani arrived Sunday in Washington for his first official visit to the United States since he was elected last September. He’s joined by CEO Abdullah Abdullah as well as other top officials. Ghani is expected to talk with Obama about delaying plans to withdraw more troops, due to concerns about violence — at the hands of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and local militias. Afghan officials are also worried about the possibility of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gaining ground in the country.
The violence continues despite Ghani saying he’s optimistic about holding peace talks with the Taliban. More than 10,000 civilians were injured or killed in 2014, and an estimated 23,000 have been killed since the war began in 2001.
During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead,” Thomas Drayton spoke with Mike Lyons, the network’s national security contributor. Lyons is a retired Army major as well as a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Joining them from Washington, was Matthew Rosenberg, a national security reporter and former Afghanistan correspondent for the New York Times.
Rosenberg raised the question of how much power Ghani truly has in Afghanistan, and how his lack of control could sway the U.S. to keep troops in the country to aid stability. He compared Ghani to controversial former President Hamid Karzai, saying it may be promising that Ghani seems eager to engage in a dialogue about Afghanistan’s future, but he “runs an incredibly weak government.” His election was characterized by fraud, and ended with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiating a deal between Ghani and his rival Abdullah, now the country’s chief executive officer.
“You have two very different sides that don’t really get along, and there’s an inherent weakness there. Karzai’s government, for all its corruption … was basically unified. ... And that kind of deep commitment isn’t there and that’s a real worry for the U.S.," Rosenberg said.
Lyons agreed that the U.S. may see it necessary to help maintain stability with military presence, and noted that military officials may encourage Obama to stay in the country. Army General John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan “went there last year … knowing that trying to pull out by 2016 would not be a good idea. By taking half the troops out for example, you’re removing half the infrastructure, half the capability. General Campbell’s concerned about the security situation just deteriorating without the required help that we could give them."
Lyons noted the strength of the Taliban fighters that the already-weak Afghan army would be up against on their own, should the U.S. pull out. “They still are on the attack, they’re closer to Kabul. … The Afghan security forces don’t have the basic capability to fight what’s a very resilient enemy. The Taliban remains on the offensive.”
Rosenberg added that though Ghani is hopeful about peace talks with the Taliban, there’s no sign that they’d be immediately successful even they begin soon. “Once they do begin, we’re talking probably a year or two or three before there’s any real reconciliation. ... And let’s say Mullah Omar or whoever is running the Taliban agrees to a deal. Will everyone follow the deal? They probably won’t. You’ll probably get disaffected groups peeling off. Some of them may raise the flag of ISIL.”
With all that’s at stake, Lyons is skeptical that the plan to leave Afghanistan troops on their own will come to fruition.
“I do think you’ll see U.S. forces still in Afghanistan in five years," he said. "I think in the next two years there will be a deal brokered where President Ghani will want U.S. forces there, and you’ll have a model similar to what we have in Germany, Korea other places where we have forces.”