One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.
Now, at the request of the South Koreans, the deadline has been lifted altogether for a “conditions based” approach that makes a lot more sense: in short, the U.S. will transfer opcon when the Koreans feel ready to assume it. South Korean officials have suggested that date won’t arrive until the mid-2020s. The Obama administration is to be commended for willing to allow the U.S. to play the lead military role on the peninsula until then.
Yet that raises an obvious question: if the U.S. stand-down in Korea is to be “conditions based,” why not in Afghanistan?
President Obama announced that he would reduce the U.S. force in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 by the end of this year and withdraw the troops altogether by the end of 2016. This is not conditions-based at all–it is based on a White House timeline that has nothing to do with on-the-ground reality.
The struggle against the Taliban continues to rage unabated. Just between March and August of this year, the Afghan National Security Forces lost more than 3,300 men–more than the U.S. has lost in 13 years of war. The Afghans are still able to hold off the Taliban, but only with continuing U.S. help. Withdraw the help, even as Pakistan continues its support for the Taliban, and the likely result will be a disintegration similar to what occurred in Iraq following the U.S. pullout in 2011.
President Obama can help Afghanistan to avoid this dire fate by extending to that country the same logic he has just applied to South Korea: namely, that U.S. troop drawdowns should be based on conditions on the ground, not on artificial deadlines dictated from Washington for political reasons.