There seems to be a popular notion in Washington that it will be possible to dramatically reduce, or even remove, the conventional U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, while maintaining a substantial diplomatic-intelligence-Special Operations contingent to buttress the Afghan security forces and target high-level terrorists. How has that idea worked out in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal? Not so well.
We already know the U.S. embassy is having to dramatically scale back its ambitious plans for 16,000 or so personnel (mainly contractors but including a couple of thousand career employees) to take some of the slack from the U.S. military mission which ended at the beginning of this year. Now the CIA is following suit, withdrawing some 60 percent of the personnel from its giant station in Iraq even though numerous threats—from al-Qaeda in Iraq to Iranian agents—remain very much alive. Here is how the Wall Street Journal, which broke this news, explains the U.S. shift:
Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.”
But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official….
“Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.
In other words, if the larger U.S. conventional military mission is pared down to zero or close to zero, there is scant possibility of leaving behind a robust Special Operations-intelligence-and diplomatic presence—and our ability to do harm to our enemies greatly declines. That is the lesson of Iraq, and it is a lesson that policymakers should keep in mind as they mull over the future of the American commitment in Afghanistan.