The Drawdown Debate

Jon Huntsman may have been a no-show at the first 2012 GOP debate, but his comments about the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan made the most news. FP asked three Afghanistan experts to weigh in.


He’s only been a candidate for a few days, but Jon Huntsman is already framing the Republican foreign policy debate. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China’s comments to Time magazine reporter Mark Halperin about the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan advocated a dramatically reduced presence in Central Asia and seemed to exemplify a GOP field far more modest about U.S. military goals.

"I think there’s the desire on the part of most Americans to begin phasing out [in Afghanistan] as quickly as possible," said Huntsman. "Now, does that mean we’ll likely have 10 or 15,000 troops behind who are prepared to collect intelligence and fight an asymmetric war against terror, of course.… This would mean that the very expensive boots on the ground are not critical for our national security needs nor is it something we can afford at this point in our economic history. I think most Americans would say it’s a good transition point."

The decision, of course, rests in the White House, where Barack Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer. Just how many troops will be coming home is still unclear. Most analysts believe it will be a small number, probably less than 10,000, removed from relatively secure positions that have been largely transferred to Afghan Army control. But could Huntsman’s plan to swiftly transition out of Afghanistan, keeping only 10,000-15,000 counterterrorism troops there, work? Or would hard-won gains be lost? Foreign Policy asked three Afghanistan experts to weigh in.

Andrew Exum: Not So Fast

Christopher Preble: Huntsman’s Right: Bring ’em Home

Douglas A. Ollivant: At Least We’re Finally Asking Questions

Andrew Exum: Not So Fast

Amb. Jon Huntsman is a thoughtful conservative whose opinion on the war in Afghanistan and the use of U.S. military force abroad is a throwback to the days when his was the party of restraint and, well, conservatism. But his comments do not change the fact that there is still more smoke than heat in the debate within the United States over the war in Afghanistan.

Although public frustration with the war has grown over the past two years, and despite an acceleration in public impatience with the war effort following the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the parameters of future U.S. and allied military efforts in Afghanistan are more or less set in stone: The United States and its allies will begin a transition in Afghanistan next month, as announced by President Barack Obama over a year and a half ago in a speech delivered to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The United States and its allies will complete this transition sometime in 2014, which is both when President Hamid Karzai has said he wants full Afghan sovereignty and the year up until which the NATO alliance has committed to Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine any development, absent a negotiated political settlement between the belligerents in Afghanistan, altering these parameters.

On the one hand, even the war effort’s most enthusiastic supporters recognize it makes little sense for the United States to devote hundreds of billions of dollars to a landlocked, resource-poor country in Central Asia ad infinitum — no matter how scary al Qaeda might still be. On the other hand, all but the most strident critics of the war effort understand that even it were logistically possible, a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan would be incredibly foolish, risking not just civil war but greater regional destabilization. Many of these same critics even advocate that the United States continue fighting the Taliban and other militant groups — but with a smaller force of advisors and special operators.

Rather than picking a number of troops the United States should leave behind in Afghanistan out of thin air, we should think about what it is, exactly, we want this residual force to accomplish. Again, absent a negotiated political settlement, the government of Afghanistan will likely face a persistent if weakened insurgency for years to come. As such, the United States and its allies will want to continue direct and indirect support to the Afghan security forces — providing not just trainers but also medical and logistical support in addition to close air support. The United States will also want to continue the fight against transnational terror networks — always the least controversial aspect of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, anyway, for both U.S. voters and their representatives in Washington.

Working with Lt. Gen. (Ret.) David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, I determined that a force that could both continue counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and continue to teach, train, and mentor the Afghan security forces would number between 25,000 and 35,000 troops, costing approximately $25 billion to $30 billion — about 75 percent less than what the U.S. Dept. of Defense will spend in 2011. Barno and I also estimated that NATO could be relied upon to contribute between 5,000 and 10,000 troops to serve as military and police trainers, though some countries are also likely to continue supporting U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts as well.

The conditions were not yet set, two years ago, for a shift to a less resource-intensive mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. and allied counterinsurgency campaign since 2009 has created time and space to build the Afghan security forces necessary to continue fighting the Taliban with a smaller investment of U.S. and allied manpower and other resources. These security forces are not a finished product, but they are much improved. In addition, the United States has reversed Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the U.S. and allied effort has been focused over the past 24 months, even as the security situation in eastern and northern Afghanistan has worsened.

The United States and its allies are ready to begin a transition in Afghanistan, though they will want to be cautious about too rapidly withdrawing from those areas where the insurgency remains strong. This transition will not take place overnight and will still require more resources than many Americans will be happy with, but we are in a better place to begin such a transition today than we were two years ago.

Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. After leading light infantry and Ranger units in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, he returned to serve as a civilian advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and last visited Afghanistan, again as an advisor to the NATO command, in December of 2010.

Christopher Preble: Huntsman’s Right: Bring ’em Home

Jon Huntsman is on the right track with his call for a much smaller U.S. military presence and a more focused mission in Afghanistan. His suggestion makes sense for at least three reasons. First, the current nation-building mission is far too costly relative to realistic alternatives, particularly at a time when Americans are looking for ways to shrink the size of government. Second, nation-building in Afghanistan is unnecessary. We can advance our national security interests without crafting a functioning nation-state in the Hindu Kush. And third, the current mission is deeply unconservative, succumbing to the same errors that trip up other ambitious government-run projects that conservatives routinely reject here at home.

Huntsman is hardly alone. Most Americans, and even many conservatives, have been questioning the known costs and the anticipated benefits of the Afghan mission for months. Last week’s report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee showing that our efforts have not merely failed, but have arguably made many of the problems in Afghanistan even worse, has merely confirmed many people’s worst fears. The World Bank estimates that foreign military and development aid constitutes 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

It is true that the Afghan mission isn’t the sole source of our fiscal distress; ending the mission tomorrow would not close the budget gap. But the resources that we have already plowed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere.

Too many analysts and defense officials falsely believe that we need to maintain a large military presence in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. They wrongly assume that a host of worst-case scenarios are likely to transpire if we reduce our footprint there. The conventional wisdom holds that weak and failing states are a breeding ground for violent extremism; thus we must build up the capacity of weak states and rebuild those that have failed. Such notions ignore the inconvenient truth that most weak and failing states are not major sources of terrorism, and a number of healthy states have been.

In fact, effective counterterrorism does not require the U.S. military to engage in armed social work in dozens of weak and failing states. It involves timely intelligence, close cooperation with locals, and, on rare occasions, targeted military operations. These might look like the special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden, or drone or missile strikes against suspected terrorists. Large numbers of troops stationed in foreign lands are usually irrelevant to such operations, and are often counterproductive: Driving out the foreign occupying army becomes a rallying cry for individuals and groups who would otherwise struggle to attract supporters and recruits.

Alas, although many rank and file Republicans agree with Huntsman, many GOP leaders do not. Perhaps that will change when they realize that, at least in this instance, good policy and good politics go hand in hand. We should bring most of our troops home, and focus the attention of the few thousand who remain on hunting al Qaeda. The United States does not need to transform a deeply divided, poverty-stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive, and stable electoral democracy, and we should stop pretending that we can.

Christopher Preble is the director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Douglas A. Ollivant: At Least We’re Finally Asking Questions

The Afghanistan comments — if perhaps not a fully articulated Afghanistan policy — expressed by Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman (and to a lesser extent, Mitt Romney) provide an opportunity for a real look at a long-term U.S. policy for Afghanistan. The current debate over troop levels is good in that it focuses attention on the problem, but asking how many troops we should withdraw this summer and over the coming year is the wrong question, and much too narrowly focused. To date, our actions in Afghanistan seem to be reactive. A proactive look at Afghanistan would start by asking the following:

  • What are our national interests in Afghanistan? Which of those are vital?
  • How much are we willing to pay for them (money, blood, institutional focus)?
  • What other costs does our policy in Afghanistan incur (e.g., reduced leverage in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan due to reliance on supply lines through their territory)?
  • What are the opportunity costs? How might our goals be accomplished in other ways?
  • Is our policy sustainable to some sort of completion?
  • And what — if anything — do we owe to the people of Afghanistan who have sided with the NATO effort?

This conversation needs to happen, and it needs to happen in Washington. Too often we hear from politicians and pundits that we should defer to "the commander in the field." But the commander in the field does not ask and should not be asking these questions. It is not the place of the ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus to ask questions about our interests and do a cost-benefit analysis. It would be irresponsible of him to openly opine that his assets might be better used in, say, Africa (let alone downsized to save money for domestic priorities). It is his job to do the best he can with the resources provided within the scope of clearly articulated national policy guidance that should, and must come from Washington.

I do not know what the proper troop number is for Afghanistan. I’m not sure any one person does. It is the most complex problem I have ever had to work on personally and the equation is incredibly multi-variant. For Washington pundits wielding Afghanistan as a political cudgel, to reduce our options to either "stay the course" in support of buzzwords such as "provide leadership" and "show strength" lest we "retreat" or — conversely — abandon the effort entirely (which is what a 10,000 – 15,000 troop counterterrorism effort would amount to) is simply unhelpful and shows a lack of seriousness.

Afghanistan has been foreign policy by domestic politics for far too long, ever since it was cast as the "good war" in opposition to the "bad war" in Iraq during the 2006 mid-term congressional elections. While the Republican primaries may be a sub-optimal place to have a truly rational discussion, that we finally have a venue in which to openly debate the relative value of our interests in Afghanistan can only be helpful.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation. He most recently spent one year as the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the commander, Regional Command-East at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

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