By Bruce Riedel
December 15, 2014
The longest war in American history is approaching its moment of truth. Next year, the American- and Nato-built Afghan army will face Pakistani-backed Taliban insurgents with only modest and decreasing foreign assistance. President Barack Obama has promised even that small troop presence will end by 2017. He needs to revisit this decision.
From January 2015, Nato will have 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which 10,800 will be Americans. Germany will be the second-largest troop contributor with 850, and Italy third with 500. The US force total is scheduled to drop to 5,500 by the end of 2015 and to near zero by the end of 2016. Obama has already slowed the withdrawal once, keeping an extra 1,000 troops next year than originally planned, and expanding their mission beyond training and advising the Afghans to include some combat roles, especially air support.
The president’s decision this past spring to publicly lay out his timeline for ending American troop involvement on the ground is widely regarded as a mistake in Washington. It gave the enemy unnecessary insight into our war plans and confidence that it could out-wait American resolve. Many fear it will lead to a repeat of the Iraq disaster, where the Iraqi army collapsed last summer without US support and lost Mosul to the Islamic State, forcing a very reluctant Obama to send troops back to Baghdad. But the White House has not changed the endgame plan so far.
Washington and Kabul have both sought to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support to the Afghan Taliban this fall. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was in Washington last month, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to improve ties. Shortly after the army chief’s visit, the Pakistan army announced it had killed a Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda operative in counter-terrorism operations near the Afghan-Pakistan border. This is a familiar pattern in US relations with Pakistan — an Arab terrorist is caught or killed just before or after a high-level bilateral meeting.