When President Obama announced his plan to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, U.S. intelligence said it could be done safely. Now, intelligence and military leaders are privately warning that the U.S. counterterrorism forces could be needed there for much longer.
During the internal administration debate earlier this year over the way forward in Afghanistan, the CIA supported a plan to degrade al Qaeda to the point that America could withdraw almost all of its troops there by 2016. The responsibility of fighting al Qaeda would be left mostly to the Afghan and Pakistani militaries.
For a White House looking to announce a new policy to go to zero combat troops in Afghanistan by the time President Obama leaves office, the agency’s classified assessment was exactly what they wanted to hear. But the assessment ran afoul of military leaders, especially those responsible for Afghanistan, who had long advocated for leaving a residual force in Afghanistan past 2016, including a strong contingent of the special operations and intelligence personnel to pursue and press al Qaeda.
Now, those military leaders and some of their intelligence community brethren are warning privately that the rise of ISIS and the growing crises in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa are drawing away counterterrorism resources faster than expected from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The plan to degrade al Qaeda enough so that U.S. forces can leave is already lagging behind schedule. And given what’s happening in Iraq, they argue dismantling U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan no longer looks like a good idea in the first place.
“The CIA assessment [earlier this year] was that whatever risk there may be in the President’s plan can be managed,” said one U.S. official who was briefed on the assessment. “In the next couple of years they can further degrade al Qaeda core to the degree where their capabilities would not require the kind of counterterrorism mission we’ve had there over the past few years.”
But critics worry that the White House plan—and the CIA assessment that underpins it—may be too hopeful.
“The issue is whether... we can manage the risk that the assessment is wrong and that al Qaeda could regenerate its senior leadership,” the official said. “Al Qaeda in Iraq was a destroyed organization when we left there and look where ISIS is now.”
If a similar scenario plays out in Afghanistan, it could leave the America vulnerable and its war gains lost.
The CIA does not currently assess that al Qaeda core is contained enough for U.S. troops to leave or even that the plan to degrade them by 2016 is on track, a senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast. The CIA was just doing its part to contribute to what is a government plan to get to that point, the official said. Other intelligence services also contributed assessments to the interagency process that led to Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would reduce its overall troop presence in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of 2014; 5,500 by the end of 2015; and down to a semi-normal embassy presence by the end of 2016 that would include an office of security cooperation.
The CIA assessment is key, however, because whatever the CIA and its director, John Brennan, recommends carries added weight in the White House, where Brennan served during the first Obama term as the president’s key counterterrorism adviser and was known for the warmth of his relationship with Obama and ready access to the Oval Office.
Some military officials are now pointing back at the CIA assessment and Brennan’s contributions to the process that led to Obama’s plan as being too optimistic, especially as the overall counterterrorism threat picture gets more and more dangerous and unpredictable.
According to two U.S. officials briefed on the classified aspects of Obama’s Afghanistan plan, counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan are to be drastically cut from their current level of 7,000, including enablers, to about 1,800 by the end of 2015—in other words, less than a third of the overall remaining force. By the end of 2016, those terror-hunters are supposed to be at nearly zero. Even though the policy has been announced, many senior military and intelligence officials are hoping that the White House will take a look at the situation on the ground and rethink it.
A senior military official confirms that U.S. special operations commanders would like to leave behind some sort of residual force to keep an eye on al Qaeda and to maintain relationships with the Afghan military. At the very least, those troops might be able to head off the type of scramble that special operations forces are now facing in Iraq.
The official said there was dissension in both the military and the CIA as to how large such a force should be, given the need to deploy both special operations troops and intelligence officers against rising terrorist actors in Syria, Iraq, and across Africa.
The official said no one in the administration believed al Qaeda would simply give up in Afghanistan, but that they saw it as a medium to long-term problem to deal with later. For now, the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the still-strong Yemeni offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, represent the more immediate threats.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had recommended a residual force in Afghanistan stay past 2016, endorsed Obama’s withdrawal plan the day it was announced on May 27. But he has also been advocating internally that some residual counterterrorism forces be left in Afghanistan past 2016, multiple officials said.
Dempsey’s spokesman, Col. Edward Thomas, told The Daily Beast that final decisions on the post 2016 counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan haven’t yet been made. Dempsey’s “intent has been retaining counterterrorism options [in Afghanistan] as we re-balance in the region,” Thomas said.
One senior military official said Brennan still supports, in general terms, the president’s plan to withdraw all the counterterrorism troops. But the CIA director is open to small modifications, including the military’s idea of a small American counterterrorism force staying—as long as the Afghans allow it.
“Al Qaeda wants Afghanistan as a haven and a base,” because it’s difficult terrain for the U.S. or local Afghan forces to find them in, the official said. “They have every intention to move back into Afghanistan.”
“The imminent departure of U.S. troops will play to the extremists’ advantage,” he said. “There’s gonna be a sense of euphoria that they defeated another superpower in December and more in 2016 and they will message it like that.”
The official said ISIS’s success in taking large swathes in Iraq is causing a shift in mindset among some in the counterterrorism community. They’re seeing an increased need to keep small numbers of advisers and officers in a growing number of areas, with threats coming from both a rising ISIS and a still-venomous al Qaeda. In other words: There are a growing number of games that must be played in.
But ISIS is emerging as such a major draw for the new generation of jihadis that it’s challenging the old al Qaeda leadership for prestige, personnel and funding, the senior official said. And that’s triggered a major internal debate among both U.S. intelligence and special operations chiefs as to how much they should leave to fight a group that is falling out of fashion.
Ideally, the Americans are hoping a future Afghan administration would ask them to stay in a base they could secure, the official said, perhaps within a larger Afghan base as some of the U.S. adviser outposts are located now. But that will depend on the Afghans.
Both remaining Afghan presidential candidates have said they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement the Obama administration negotiated with Hamid Karzai. It would provide for 10 more years of U.S.-Afghan security cooperation even though Obama is only committing to two years of robust presence. The next administration in Kabul might actually ask for more U.S. troops to stay longer.
“The next president of Afghanistan will want to have a conversation with the President of the United States about rethinking this agreement,” one U.S. official said.
White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas told The Daily Beast that the U.S. will be able to provide advice to Afghan counterterrorism elements even with a small force in the embassy. The Obama administration has a plan in place to “ensure we can effectively continue to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda,” she said. “We plan on maintaining an ability to maintain pressure on al Qaeda and, in cooperation with our Afghan partners, to deny the use of Afghanistan’s territory from ever again being used to launch a catastrophic attack on our people and our homeland.”
But Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell, the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he was concerned about the prospect of withdrawing all the U.S. counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 because the Afghan forces were not even close to ready to take over the mission.
“We have a couple years to continue work on the gaps and seams that the Afghan Army and their government has: aviation, ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], and logistics,” he said. “The [counterterrorism] piece, as we talked earlier, is very, very important not only for Pakistan and Afghanistan but for our nation.”
Campbell also said that if the Afghans aren’t ready by 2017 and U.S. counterterrorism forces withdraw, the now-simmering al Qaeda threat near the Afghan-Pakistan border could come back as strong as before.
“So if we can't rely on the Afghans and the Pakistani elements to defend America from a re-generated al Qaeda-type force, and if being outside the country is not advisable, it seems to me that the line of defense that America enjoys today is going to vanish, if something doesn't change. Is that a fair statement, General Campbell?” Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Campbell at the hearing.
“Sir, following your analogy, that would be a fair statement,” Campbell replied.
Gen. David Barno—the former head of NATO forces in Afghanistan who now serves as a co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security—said that alternative methods of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, such as offshore strikes and advising local partners, were simply less effective than having counterterrorism forces on the ground.
“The idea that you could keep the pressure on terrorism networks in Afghanistan in the future without any counterterrorism forces there is highly problematic,” Barno said. “Al Qaeda has proven to be an astonishingly resilient organization in the face of great pressure from the U.S. Whatever their capabilities now, tomorrow they could rebound.”