The Complex

America’s Longest War Could Get Even Longer

Senior Afghan and Pakistani officials, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are urging Barack Obama’s administration to reconsider withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, pointing to the chaos and violence in Iraq and warning that Afghanistan could suffer a similar fate if all the Americans go home by 2016, as planned. The United States ...

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Senior Afghan and Pakistani officials, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are urging Barack Obama’s administration to reconsider withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, pointing to the chaos and violence in Iraq and warning that Afghanistan could suffer a similar fate if all the Americans go home by 2016, as planned.

The United States and the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani inked a long-awaited bilateral security agreement on Tuesday, Sept. 30, that clears the way for 9,800 American troops to remain in Afghanistan when the U.S. combat mission ends later this year.

A "vast majority" of the 9,800 American troops will carry out "train and advise missions" under the NATO umbrella, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Tuesday. The official declined to say how many U.S. special operations forces will remain in Afghanistan to carry out counterterrorism operations.

"I can’t quantify it, but I can say that with a smaller footprint and fewer people you do less than with a larger footprint and more people," the U.S. official said.

Many senior military and civilian officials from the Afghan and Pakistani governments, however, fear that the Obama administration is pulling up stakes far too soon. In face-to-face meetings in Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad, representatives of the two countries have been pressing their American counterparts to leave more troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. Sticking to the schedule laid out by Obama, they argue, would pave the way for the Taliban to conquer large portions of Afghanistan, just as Islamic State militants have done in Iraq.

"You can have well-designed plans, but the future is hard to predict and you have to be willing to adjust those plans based on the reality of what’s taking place on the ground," a senior Afghan official said in a recent interview. "The situation in Afghanistan in 2014 is very difficult, and we have been asking our American friends to re-evaluate their plans for leaving Afghanistan so you don’t see what has happened in Iraq happen there as well."

Pakistani officials are also complaining that the shrinking American military presence in Afghanistan already has hurt security across the countries’ porous border. As the Pakistani military mounted an offensive this year to drive out militants from its North Waziristan region, many of them escaped to neighboring Afghanistan because American and Afghan troops failed to seal the border, Pakistani officials have said.

The quiet Afghan and Pakistani lobbying campaign reflects the growing concerns throughout South Asia about Afghanistan’s tenuous security situation, which has deteriorated amid renewed Taliban offensives. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed this year, with thousands more injured, as well-armed militants move back into areas once controlled by the U.S.-led NATO military coalition. Afghanistan’s neighbors have taken notice: India’s new prime minister is using his maiden trip to the United States to press the point.

"We requested to America, regarding the defense withdrawal subject — please do not repeat the mistake that you did in Iraq," Modi told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday. "Because after [the] withdrawal from Iraq, you know what happened there. So the withdrawal process from Afghanistan should be very slow, and only then can we stop the Taliban from emerging its head."

Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan has made formal, government-to-government requests for a larger, sustained U.S. troop presence, according to officials who have been briefed on the discussions. Instead, those messages are conveyed during meetings between officials from the two countries and their U.S. counterparts.

In Kabul, for instance, Afghan officials directly made their case to U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top American commander in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Dunford raised eyebrows in Washington this year when he warned a Senate panel that withdrawing U.S. forces would mean that Afghanistan’s "security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration."

At least so far, there are no signs that the White House is reconsidering Obama’s "responsible end" to the long Afghanistan war.

"There are currently no plans to change the plan the president announced," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. "One of the lessons we should take out of what is happening in Iraq is that security force training is not enough and does not create sustainable results, without inclusive governance. That is why the new unity government just sworn-in in Afghanistan is so important, why we worked hard to support it coming together, and why we’ll continue to support it."

Afghan and Pakistani officials believe they are finding a more receptive audience on Capitol Hill, but some powerful lawmakers have little interest in altering the withdrawal timeline. Asked this month whether Iraq’s unraveling should prompt a timeline re-evaluation, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said no.

"I think Afghanistan is very different from Iraq," he said. "I don’t see the connection."

An end to the U.S. military commitment could hit Afghanistan’s bottom line as well. International aid flow into Afghanistan is closely linked to security, and any deterioration in the latter is likely to cause donors to balk, collapsing the Afghan economy. At the September NATO summit in Wales, the international coalition agreed to spend 1 billion euros annually over and above the $4.1 billion contribution from the United States, according to a White House statement. The United States expects Afghanistan to start paying $500 million annually for its forces starting in 2015, according to the White House.

Since 2001, the United States has provided $104 billion toward Afghanistan’s reconstruction, according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. About $16 billion of the money appropriated by U.S. Congress is still in the pipeline waiting to be spent, and the United States is likely to keep spending between $5 billion and $8 billion a year on Afghanistan even after American troops are set to leave in 2016, Sopko said in a speech at Georgetown University this month.

If Afghanistan’s security worsens after 2016, its economy may follow.

John Hudson contributed to this article.

 Twitter: @g_ratnam

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