Should the Military Pull All Forces Out of Afghanistan After 2014?

As the White House negotiates to keep military forces in Afghanistan after 2014, it's time to address what the small force being considered can actually accomplish.

On 25 February the White House issued a public statement on the status of the negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan over keeping troops in the country after 2014. In unusually stark language, the press release noted that the President had “asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.” The release was likely intended to pressure the Karzai government, or the next Afghan president to be chosen in April’s election, to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), authorizing military forces to remain in Afghanistan. Many pundits in the US argue that a failure to leave troops in Afghanistan after 2014 would be a major error. A comprehensive assessment of the situation, however, indicates that leaving troops may be worse than a complete withdrawal.

The White House release indicated that if the BSA is signed, the forces left in Afghanistan would be given “a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda.” Many reports suggest senior military and diplomatic officials believe that a force 10,000 US troops is the right size to accomplish those missions. One senior officer said the future in Afghanistan would be “grim” if no US troops remain after 2014.

Before committing more military lives to Afghanistan, a number essential questions need to be asked about the proposed mission to determine if it is worth it and what impact its success would have for the United states.

The first and most important: what is this residual force expected to accomplish strategically for the United States? According to the press release cited above, the White House expects the post-2014 force to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces and conduct some level of anti-terrorism missions. But can an American force of 10,000 accomplish those missions?

It is certain beyond question that whatever tactical tasks those troops are given will be executed with great competency. US Forces could conduct limited direct combat operations, they could train some number of Afghan units, advise Afghan-led operations, and conduct targeted special operations missions. Each task given to an Army, Marine, or Special Forces unit would most likely be successfully accomplished. But towards what end?

Absent thus far from the discussions on the size of the force, is any assessment of what strategic goals its tactical tasks will accomplish. For example, will the Force be tasked to “defeat” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? “Degrade” them? In terms of the training mission, how will success be determined? Is there a standard that, once achieved, means the mission will have accomplished its goals? These are not minor questions. In the absence of the consideration of the strategic intent of the residual force, we are left with accomplishing mere “actions.”

If the US commander is told to “conduct” a series of tactical tasks with 10,000 troops, he will unquestionably succeed. But what will be the strategic impact of that success? Consider that the US has been conducting this same list of tactical tasks for the better part of the past five years. When I was serving on the ground in Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, there were nearly 150,000 US and NATO troops. These forces never lost a single tactical fight to the Taliban. They trained literally hundreds of thousands of Afghan security personnel. Yet the cumulative efforts of this massive force had virtually no impact on the course of the war. Today the security situation on the ground is indistinguishable from what it was three years ago.

What is a force of 10,000 going to accomplish that 150,000 did not?

In all probability, Americans will continue to be killed and wounded, but at a lower rate. More Afghan security forces will go through training sessions, and special operators will continue conducting select missions to “take out” a limited number of suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Yet in the end, these tactical actions will likely neither meaningfully degrade the insurgency nor have a measureable impact on the strength and capapbilities of terrorists. Of course if the Afghan leadership doesn’t sign a BSA, the matter may be moot. While many warn that a complete withdrawal will sacrifice “hard won gains,” the truth is that leaving even 10,000 troops will not change that outcome.

American policy makers should think very seriously before sending the US Armed Forces on a post-2014 mission that doesn’t have an articulated strategic purpose, and recognize that a force as small as the one under consideration is capable of accomplishing only the most limited strategic tasks. Expending American treasure and blood should only be undertaken when it has a reasonable chance of success. It is not clear that this proposed mission meets that standard.

The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col in the US Army, stationed in Washington, DC. He has deployed into combat zones four times in his career, being awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm and Bronze Star in Afghanistan.