Strategic Issues Facing the Next COMISAF


USMC General Joe Dunford appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee today to be confirmed as the next Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The hearing brought to light several enduring strategic issues that will affect the Afghanistan campaign over the next several years. If confirmed as COMISAF,  General Dunford will contend will three critical strategic challenges: to withdraw U.S. Forces from Afghanistan by 2014; to maintain Afghan National Security Force capacity; and to establish a U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement.

Rapid and continuous withdrawal of U.S. forces on the road to 2014

According to the White House, the size and scope of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan will continue at a steady pace on the road to 2014. Publically, no one is quite sure how many forces the White House will seek to withdraw in 2013 and 2014. It is imperative that the plan for withdrawal remain sensitive to conditions on the ground, especially in anticipation of the 2013 fighting season, in which ANSF must demonstrate operational success. Current COMISAF General John Allen has provided his assessment and recommendations to the Pentagon, which include the “operational conditions” he expects to see in 2013 along with a recommendation of the force levels required. According to Senator McCain’s remarks at General Dunford’s nomination hearing, military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan believe that they cannot sustain a significant drawdown beyond the 68,000 U.S. troops before the end of 2014 without jeopardizing the success of the mission.

 In written remarks to the committee, General Dunford noted that any future drawdowns to the current 68,000 U.S. force will depend on several variables, including progress of the campaign, the state of the insurgency, and the readiness of the ANSF to assume full security leadership and responsibility to the Afghan government. He also noted that he is not directly involved in the process of recommending force levels, though he will presumably provide suggestions to the White House sometime in the near future. According to press reports, force levels for 2012 and 2013 may be determined and announced by the White House before General Dunford is able to conduct his own assessment after taking command.  

Maintaining 352,000 ANSF

Over the past year, there has been significant speculation that the Afghan Security Forces would be downsized from their proposed peak of 352,000 to approximately 230,000. In testimony, General Dunford referenced a recent Center for Army Analysis wargame which concluded that roughly 230,000 ANSF offered the best probability of success given the estimated threat environment in 2017. However, it would be imprudent to reduce the size of ANSF while U.S. Forces withdraw, as the threat will undoubtedly re-posture during transition for post-2014 contingencies. To make permanent and irreversible decisions on the total end-state of the ANSF now or in 2015 based on a current prediction of the threat environment in 2017 would grievously undermine our strategic interests in Afghanistan.  

During his testimony, General Dunford echoed President Obama’s May 2012 remarks, noting that he believed the ANSF should be sustained at their peak of 352,000 through 2014 but that at some point after that, the ANSF will have to be “right-sized” as U.S. and coalition financial contributions to the mission decreases. In all likelihood, the ANSF will need 352,000 troops well beyond 2014, and any decision to reduce the end-strength of that force should be exclusively driven by conditions on the ground. Fortunately, the decision to decrease the ANSF by one third has not yet been made. After more than ten years of war at the cost of more than half a trillion dollars (more than $100 billion per year over the past three years), continuing to fund the ANSF at an end-strength of 352,000 for several years beyond 2014 is a smart investment and the best way to ensure that the hard fought gains over the past several years are not lost to a resurgent Taliban or ethnic infighting.

Concluding the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement

In May, President Obama and President Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan until at least 2024. The largely symbolic agreement did not include any concrete financial or security commitments. Instead, the U.S. and Afghanistan tabled those concrete commitments for the Bilateral Security Agreement that is still pending. Official discussions on the bilateral agreement began on November 14th, and both sides have until early summer 2013 to reach an agreement. Although contentious issues such as immunity for U.S. personnel and detention of local and foreign fighters are just some of the potential challenges that must be discussed, most senior Afghan leaders want to maintain a U.S. military and financial commitment beyond 2014. More than anything, Afghans want to know that they can trust the U.S. to honor its military and financial commitments so that the Afghan people will not be abandoned after 2014.

It is imperative that U.S. political and military leadership not only demonstrate a desire to support the Afghan state beyond 2014, but that we do not act hastily or irresponsibly with our security and financial commitments in 2013 and 2014. A primary determinant of the military and financial commitments to the Afghan state beyond 2014 will be how the U.S. prosecutes the mission of the next several years. If U.S. forces maintain a sizable troop presence to conduct training and combat missions in the lead up to 2014, it ought to set the conditions for a more stable security environment and mission-capable ANSF and bolster confidence among our Afghan partners that the U.S. remains committed to the mission.


As the White House begins the process of determining the size and scope of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, they must do so while heeding the advice of those tasked with executing the mission Continuing the process of transition in a measured and responsible way that enables the ANSF to adapt to their roles and responsibilities is the most prudent way forward. The conditions that warrant a continued withdrawal of U.S. forces will be evident if the ANSF increase their capability in areas such as leadership, logistics and counter-IED and existing national security threats such as al-Qaeda and their affiliates are sufficiently and irrevocably blunted on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Although not a guarantee over the next several years, a premature exodus of critical enablers and unparalleled combat power will almost certainly expedite mission failure.

As a recent article in Foreign Policy argued, watching Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil is not in anyone’s interest. The military and political fracturing of Afghanistan would jeopardize core U.S. interests such as preventing the reestablishment of safe havens for terrorists, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of careful but fragile regional stability, including that of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Jeffrey Dressler is senior research analyst and team lead for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War.