Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.
Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.
Before he stepped down at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis testified that it would be necessary to keep 13,600 US troops in Afghanistan post-2014 along with some 6,000 allied forces. That strikes me as a pretty barebones commitment, given the US need to station forces not only in Kabul but also in southern and eastern Afghanistan so as to continue Special Operations raids against Al Qaeda, Haqqani, and other terrorists.
Yet the leaks emanating from the White House suggest that Obama will dispatch fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops–perhaps many fewer. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect because the European commitment will be contingent on the size of the American commitment: the fewer American troops, the fewer NATO troops.
The Afghan security forces have shown they are capable of holding back the Taliban largely on their own this fighting season, but they are suffering heavy casualties, and they remain dependent on American forces for critical functions such as medical evacuation of wounded personnel. Without medevac on call–along with intelligence, logistics, and other support–there is a real risk that the Afghan forces will crumble under an unrelenting Taliban assault.
A few U.S. troops are better than none, but unless Obama is willing to carry out the best advice of his generals and maintain a substantial American contingent after 2014, their usefulness will be limited. Unfortunately Obama hasn’t been much for taking military advice since he decided to accelerate the withdrawal of surge forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 in contravention of Gen. David Petraeus’s recommendations.