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Afghanistan Withdrawal and Drone Strikes

The agreement announced today by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai to speed up the transition of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory role is largely symbolic, since our troops will not be prohibited from engaging in combat. But the desire of the president to pull out as quickly and completely as possible is palpable.

No doubt if he decides to leave only a token residual force behind, or none at all, he will claim that the U.S. can adequately disrupt and deter terrorist groups with the lightest of light footprints. But is that actually true? This Washington Post article reports, not surprisingly, that the CIA is planning its own downsizing in Afghanistan to go along with the military drawdown:

A former U.S. intelligence official with extensive experience in Afghanistan said the CIA has begun discussing plans to pare back its network of bases across the country to five from 15 or more because of the difficulty of providing security for its outposts after most U.S. forces have left….

“As the military pulls back, the agency has to pull back,” the former U.S. intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity, particularly from high-risk outposts along the country’s eastern border that have served as bases for running informant networks and gathering intelligence on al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.

Such a retrenchment could slow the process of identifying fresh targets for drone strikes, although the agency is expected to continue operating the remotely piloted planes from fortified bases, such as a landing strip in Jalalabad.

“Essentially we will become Fort Apache in Kabul and the major cities,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, describing a pared back CIA presence. Even if the drones continue to take off and land, the diminished presence in Khost and other locations could hamper “our ability to gather intelligence on where Zawahiri is and what al-Qaeda is doing in the North-West Frontier Province” of Pakistan, he said, referring to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the region now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Actually the situation could be even more grim than that because if we don’t make a substantial commitment to Afghanistan’s government post-2014, its willingness to allow us to continue any counter-terrorist missions is very much in doubt. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Ron Neumann notes in an op-ed:

A presence of 3,000 to 6,000 troops is a counterterrorist policy that gives up on serious support for the Afghan military and focuses on killing our enemies. It offers nothing to Afghans except endless killing and, hence, will face increasing Afghan rejection. Further, since our forces will need local allies for intelligence and logistical support, such a tiny presence is likely to further empower the very warlords who have done so much to foment corruption. If the Afghan state collapses without our support, our presence will be unsustainable. In sum, a counterterrorist strategy is superficially attractive but a bankrupt strategic choice.

Neumann is right. The withdrawal of almost all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan will have a disastrous impact on the ability of the CIA to gather intelligence on, and target, terrorists not only in Afghanistan but, crucially, in Pakistan too. This is a worrisome eventuality because Pakistan remains home to some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, ranging from the Haqqani Network to the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others. If we lose our bases in Afghanistan, we will lose the ability to fight these groups–a signature initiative of this president who has elevated the role of drone strikes to unprecedented levels.


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