If the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe is right, President Obama may be rethinking his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. Previously, Jaffe writes, Obama had waved away all military entreaties to keep more U.S. troops after 2016. But “in August, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came in with one more plan to maintain a counterterrorism force of as many as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan to prevent a reemergence of al-Qaeda and battle Islamic State fighters seeking a foothold in the country. Dempsey’s plan was a quick, back-of-the-envelope exercise, according to senior administration officials. This time, though, Obama didn’t dismiss it.”
That’s progress of a sort, but there is little reason to think that 5,000 troops would be adequate to enable the Afghan National Security Forces to stop the march of the Taliban, which continue to benefit from robust support from Pakistan. Even 10,000 U.S. troops — the number currently deployed — now looks to be insufficient. It’s not just the temporary fall of Kunduz that signals trouble. There are plenty of other indicators as well.
The United Nations reports that the Taliban have spread throughout more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. The New York Times reports: “United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either ‘high’ or ‘extreme’.”
The Times article details the extent of the woes: “Even Highway One, a ring road connecting all of Afghanistan’s main cities, has long suffered repeated Taliban ambushes and roadblocks in southern Afghanistan; over the past two weeks the insurgents repeatedly cut the highway in the Doshi and Baghlani Jadid districts of Baghlan Province — long an uncontested government stronghold. Few government officials now use the highway along much of its route. In many districts that are nominally under government control, like Musa Qala in Helmand Province and Charchino in Oruzgan Province, government forces hold only the government buildings in the district center and are under constant siege by the insurgents.”
A Reuters dispatch provides further confirmation of the danger, noting that the Taliban could be on the verge of seizing another provincial capital — Ghazni, which is located only 80 miles from Kabul.
None of this invalidates Gen. John Campbell’s claim that “The Afghan security forces have displayed courage and resilience,” and that “They’re still holding.” But the facts on the ground indicate that the ability of the security forces to hold on is tenuous and subject to further erosion.
What this suggests is that President Obama has endangered the hard-won gains of the troop surge, which began in 2010, by prematurely withdrawing all but 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and by limiting their ability to assist Afghan forces with air support. There is nothing magical about the 10,000 figure: It was dreamed up in the White House. Actually the total U.S. force size is around 9,800 so that the president can boast that there are “fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops” left in Afghanistan. This is political legerdemain. It’s not a serious politico-military strategy.
Instead of reducing U.S. force levels to 5,000, the president ought to be increasing them to at least 20,000 to 25,000 and once again giving U.S. forces greater freedom to provide their Afghan allies with air support. That move will signal resolve and provide a much-needed lift to the hard-pressed Afghan army. Reducing U.S. force levels to 5,000 is better than nothing, but it’s not enough to stop the rot.