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The Post-2014 Outlook for Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins has an excellent article in the New Yorker on the post-2014 outlook for Afghanistan. The whole thing is worth reading, but to put the bottom line up front: Afghanistan is going to be in big trouble if the U.S. pulls out too many troops.

As Filkins notes, “Without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014—the Afghan Army could once again fracture along ethnic lines.” He writes:

Afghan and American officials believe that some precipitating event could prompt the country’s ethnic minorities to fall back into their enclaves in northern Afghanistan, taking large chunks of the Army and police forces with them. Another concern is that Jamiat officers within the Afghan Army could indeed try to mount a coup against Karzai or a successor. The most likely trigger for a coup, these officials say, would be a peace deal with the Taliban that would bring them into the government or even into the Army itself. Tajiks and other ethnic minorities would find this intolerable. Another scenario would most likely unfold after 2014: a series of dramatic military advances by the Taliban after the American pullout.

The result of such setbacks could be a revival of the bloody civil war that brought the Taliban to power in 1996. How to avoid that terrible outcome? Keep a substantial U.S. advisory and counterterrorism force past 2014. In this new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations, I argued, citing work done at the Center for a New American Security, that we need a force of 25,000 to 35,000 personnel, and the Filkins article amply backs up that judgment. He writes:

A force of fifteen thousand Americans would probably not be large enough to spread trainers and air controllers throughout the Afghan Army (and not throughout the police, who are at tiny checkpoints scattered around the country). “If they go below thirty thousand, it will be difficult for them to do any serious mentoring, and without the mentors they won’t call in airpower,” Giustozzi, the Italian researcher, said.

The question is whether anyone in Washington is paying attention. The politicos seem so determined to rush out of Afghanistan that few decision makers seem to be paying attention to what kind of country they will leave behind.