How to waste a decade in Afghanistan
Leaving a bare-bones U.S. presence will risk a return of the Taliban—and civil war.

US Navy/Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ryan Schulte, left, and Spc. Michael Jones provide rooftop security during a key leader engagement in Farah City, Afghanistan, Jan. 6, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • If Obama reduces the US force level in Afghanistan, the conditions will be ideal for al Qaeda's return.

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  • The military reality: we cannot conduct missions in Afghanistan at the force level Obama is considering.

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  • The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains the headquarters of the global al Qaeda movement.

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At the White House on Friday, President Obama will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Although Mr. Karzai will presumably take up his continuous complaints that America has "imposed" corruption on his country, the more vital subject for both parties will be the size of the U.S. military footprint beyond 2014.

Administration officials are already leaking that the U.S. presence will be smaller than that requested by Gen. John Allen. The U.S. commander in the region has said that a force of 6,000 to 20,000 troops is needed. The White House has floated that 3,000 to 4,000 may be sufficient.

The divergence mirrors a more general disjunction in U.S. policy and perceptions regarding Afghanistan. Americans think the war is going badly, and many think it is hopelessly lost. But the Obama administration says that the process of "transitioning" responsibility for security to the Afghan military is going well enough to justify dramatic reductions in American forces this year and after 2014.

Has the president decided to cut his losses or does he actually think that the U.S. will have succeeded in Afghanistan at the end of his second term? Does it even matter?

Success in Afghanistan has always meant driving al Qaeda out and preventing it from returning. The U.S. cleared al Qaeda from the country in 2001-02 quickly, and with few forces. American efforts have since aimed at creating conditions in which Afghanistan will be able to keep al Qaeda out with limited international assistance. This part of the task has always been the most difficult. Yet it remains as vital today as it was in 2001. Failing at it means letting al Qaeda regain its footing in the land from which it launched the most devastating terror attack against the U.S. in history.

It might be comforting to imagine that killing Osama bin Laden and other key leaders has neutralized al Qaeda, or that the terror group is no longer seeking to return to Afghanistan when other theaters of jihad are available. But Ayman al Zawahiri has solidly replaced bin Laden at the helm, and other lieutenants have filled vacancies in the organization. Despite the dramatic expansion of al Qaeda franchises in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and Syria since President Obama took office, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains the headquarters of the global al Qaeda movement. It is also home to the largest concentration of regional and global Islamist terrorist organizations in the world.

The reasons are simple. Pakistan does not effectively govern, police or control a large area on its side of the border—and Afghan and international forces have been fighting hard to gain control of a larger area on the Afghan side that is also historically difficult for Kabul to control. The very concentration of terrorist groups in this area is itself a reason for them to remain there, where they can communicate and support one another easily and directly. They share logistics facilities, training areas, weapons factories and many other critical pieces of terrorist infrastructure that would be hard and costly to replicate elsewhere.

The U.S. has long recognized that some ungoverned space will remain in Afghanistan—and in Pakistan. One aim of America's efforts in Afghanistan has been to reduce the size of this terrorist-friendly area while making it difficult for terrorists to operate in what remains. The U.S. has pursued that aim by building an Afghan National Security Force tied both to a minimally functional Afghan government and to international forces over the long term.

The strategy was not to build an ANSF that could function without any international assistance. Creating a fully independent ANSF, if possible at all, would take decades. Even our European allies—France and Britain included—require significant American logistical and air support to conduct major operations. No one has ever imagined that the Afghan army would do better than the French.

For all of these reasons the Obama administration will no doubt promise that the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to the Afghan military in addition to continuing counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. But the military reality is that we cannot conduct either mission at the force level the president is considering.

We cannot conduct effective counterterrorism operations without having bases near the targets. The American military will rightly not send its forces to fight beyond the range of medevac and rapid reinforcement, and the commander in chief should never ask the military to do so. Afghanistan's miserable terrain, with localized weather patterns that frequently block access through critical passes, requires a dispersed footprint with helicopters and fixed-wing air support as well as necessary medical and logistics facilities.

At the force level the administration has suggested, the U.S. would be able to keep only two bases in Afghanistan, most likely for logistical reasons at Bagram and either Kabul or Kandahar. They are not close enough to support counterterrorism operations where most needed—in the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Khost and Paktika.

Neither would there be enough U.S. forces to assist the Afghan army. There would be no more American soldiers fighting alongside Afghans, as in the past, and not even embedded U.S. trainers in their units. The Afghans would not be able to call in U.S. air, artillery or medical support. These are the enablers that have given the Afghans both the confidence and the combat power to stand and fight for the past three years, taking casualties several times as numerous as the coalition. Brave as the Afghan soldiers are, they simply cannot stand and fight without U.S. support.

Instead, the Afghan army would be immobilized on its bases and unwilling to patrol. That fact by itself would expand the ungoverned area of Afghanistan more than enough to allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself in many areas.

That bleak prospect is the best case. It is far more likely that a U.S. withdrawal to one or two bases will leave the field clear for a renewal of the ethnic civil war that brought the Taliban to power (and al Qaeda into Afghanistan) in the 1990s. Those who say that Afghanistan can't get any worse than it is today lack both imagination and any knowledge of the country's recent history.

The civil war has been largely suspended since 2001. But it was not settled. Negotiations with the Taliban, which the Obama administration so earnestly pursues, make the return of ethnic conflict more likely rather than less, since the non-Pashtun groups will not tolerate a Taliban return to power.

If a much-reduced U.S. force level is announced, Afghans will say that the Americans have abandoned their country. They will be right. With a drastically reduced U.S. presence, the Afghan government and army will fracture, warlords will begin fighting each other and the insurgents and terrorists in ungoverned spaces. The conditions will be ideal for al Qaeda's return.

That's failure. And it will matter.

Mr. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Ms. Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

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