The Afghan Endgame- The Weekly Standard

By Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan

Originally published in The Weekly Standard , February 25, 2013

President Obama’s decision to withdraw another 34,000 troops from Afghanistan over the course of the next year is unwise. It greatly increases the risk of mission failure in that important conflict, jeopardizing gains already made in the Taliban heartland in the south and compromising the ability of Afghan and coalition forces to finish the fight against the Haqqani Network in the east. It also increases the risk that al Qaeda will be able to reestablish itself in limited safe havens in Afghanistan over time. Removing troops and capabilities before Afghanistan’s next presidential election, scheduled for April 2014, further exacerbates the danger that Afghanistan might collapse into renewed ethnic civil war.

It was not as bad as it might have been, however, and prospects for success in this conflict remain, although the odds grow ever longer. The president appears to have yielded to military realities and the laws of physics on a number of important points. The drawdown itself is paced to keep a significant number of American troops in Afghanistan through most of this coming fighting season: Around 6,000 troops are to be withdrawn between now and this spring; another 8,000 by November; and the final 20,000 by February 2014.

Senior administration officials explained on background that the first stage of this withdrawal is already underway and results largely from the deployment of brigades configured to conduct training and advising missions rather than combat. General Joe Dunford, the new commander in Afghanistan, will therefore have to redeploy only another 8,000 troops while fighting the enemy this summer—a far more manageable challenge than if he had had to redeploy the full 28,000 while still trying to accomplish his primary mission of helping the Afghans defeat our common enemies and consolidate gains. Administration officials also said that a sizable contingent of planners and logisticians now in Afghanistan to design and execute the drawdown are not counted against the total troop numbers—a vital fact, since writing and implementing such a plan is a massive undertaking that could well otherwise consume the staffs and commanders who must focus on continuing progress against the enemy and training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

The president has also postponed an announcement—and, according to administration officials, even the decision—on the size of the post-2014 U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. That postponement is very wise. The discussion of the long-term presence is premature at this stage of the campaign. It is impossible to describe the security situation in 2015 before the 2013 fighting season has even begun. And considering that administration officials were floating the idea of keeping no troops at all in Afghanistan after 2014 when President Hamid Karzai came to Washington in January, the deferral of a decision on this matter is a relief.

Read the entire opinion editorial at The Weekly Standard.