It now appears that — barring some truly exceptional circumstances — Barack Obama has made his last decision regarding Afghanistan as president of the United States. The current force of about 10,000 U.S. service members will remain through the end of 2016, when it will quickly draw down to a force of about 5,500. The next president will take office with a force in Kabul and relatively small detachments on the airfields at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.
It has not been a good year in Afghanistan. The fall of Kunduz has been very well documented, but even regular consumers of news may not have noticed the steady drumbeat of falling territories throughout the country. In the far southwest in Helmand, the Taliban appear to be closing in on the capital city of Lashkar Gah. In the east, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Taliban are fighting fierce battles in Nangarhar province, which just happens to be a key link in the country’s major drug smuggling route. And the road between Kabul, the nation’s capital, and Kandahar, the second-largest city, has been effectively cut off. Against this backdrop, the planned U.S. troop reduction sends an unhelpful signal to friends and enemies alike.
Yet at the same time, U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001. If 14 years have not brought about change, why would another one or five or 10 make a difference?
The next president could accept the hand that she or he has been dealt and continue with the reduced deployment, at a cost of about $15 billion annually — including about $4-5 billion to pay the salaries and expenses of the Afghan Army. This will allow U.S. troops to do little more than maintain a presence in Kabul, help run the Afghan training base, maintain a special forces presence and perhaps advise a few units, though by no means all. At this force level, the Taliban will likely continue to gain traction in the periphery of the country.
The next president could also follow President Obama’s original plan and further reduce the military presence to a force of 1,000 troops in and around the U.S. embassy in Kabul, which would do little more than high-level advising. This would cost perhaps $6-8 billion annually. But at this level, it is unlikely that anywhere other than the capital would be immune from Taliban infiltration, and the bulk of the countryside would likely fall outside of Kabul’s control.
Or the next president could ramp up the troop presence in Afghanistan, perhaps returning a combat brigade or two with a larger advisory effort, with as many as 25,000 service members at a cost as high as $35 billion. At this level, the Taliban could probably be pushed back and the Afghan government would maintain its current level of weak control.
Several pundits have called for a deployment on this scale, along the lines of the force that has stayed in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. There, a residual U.S. force helped transform a poor agrarian economy into one of the richest in the world, and perhaps something similar could happen in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, this analogy suffers from a host of major defects. First, in South Korea case, the U.S. Army served a purely defensive function against North Korea’s external threat. By contrast, a new deployment to Afghanistan would be aimed at changing the security status quo, a much more ambitious undertaking. Afghanistan remains in a state of civil war, in which the U.S. is assisting one deeply flawed — though preferable — faction. A peaceful settlement remains remote, and in the meantime, U.S. casualties are inevitable.
Perhaps equally important, Afghanistan is simply not blessed with South Korea’s geography. South Korea is a peninsula with several major ports that allow it to push its products — whether agricultural, manufactured or high-tech — to world markets with great ease. Conversely, Afghanistan remains landlocked and mountainous, and opium is its only product valuable enough to justify the transportation costs over difficult terrain and across international borders to get to a seaport.
Finally, much of Afghanistan is deeply resistant to the necessary improvements to education, women’s rights and rule of law that would be required to transform it into anything resembling a modern country.
The next president will be forced to make a rational assessment regarding U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Should she or he withdraw forces back to the embassy, fully understanding the chaos that will ensue? Or should she or he commit to a long-term presence, at a 10-year cost that could approach half a trillion dollars and scores of U.S. casualties?
After 14 years, there are many Americans who have emotional attachments or financial interests in Afghanistan. The Afghans themselves will continue to welcome a U.S. presence, as much for the boost to their otherwise dismal economy as for any security guarantee. And the Pentagon would find a resurgent Afghanistan deployment a powerful counter to arguments that the Army should continue to cut its force structure.
But difficult questions remain. What are U.S. interests in Afghanistan, exactly? What makes Afghanistan so much more important than other potential terrorist safe havens? What can Americans really hope to accomplish with another long-term commitment? Will the conversation be any different five or 10 years from now?
Lamentably, the next president will face no good choices when it comes to Afghanistan. But making the least bad choice will factor strongly in setting the tone for his or her foreign policy.