Will the United States Really Go to Zero Troops in Afghanistan?
In the final U.S. presidential debate of 2016, candidate Donald Trump sharply criticized his opponent Hillary Clinton on the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Specifically, he claimed that by withdrawing all U.S. forces from that country, “she gave us ISIS because her and Obama created this huge vacuum.” On Feb. 29 of this year, President Trump authorized Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad to sign the awkwardly titled “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.” The agreement calls for the United States to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, but given Trump’s sharp criticism of a similar, previous course of action in Iraq, it is unclear whether a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will really happen.
The agreement itself suggests that it will not. To understand why requires examining the agreement in a bit more detail. The text of the document contains three main parts. In the first part, the United States agreed to a number of terms. Chief among these is to draw down its military forces to a total of 8,600 troops within 135 days (which has nearly happened) and, subject to the Taliban meeting its obligations, to withdraw all of its remaining forces within another nine and a half months. Washington also agreed to facilitate a prisoner exchange between the Afghan government and the Taliban (which has been happening, albeit slowly). In the second part, the Taliban agreed not to allow any of its members or other groups—explicitly including al-Qaeda—to use Afghanistan to threaten U.S. security or for recruiting, training and fundraising activities designed to do so. The third part of the agreement includes a requirement for the United States to seek endorsement from the United Nations for the deal, which Washington has already done. And it includes these two sentences:
The United States and … the Taliban seek positive relations with each other and expect that the relations between the United States and the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations will be positive.
The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs.
Given their emphasis on troop withdrawals and counterterrorism issues, the first two parts of the agreement have gotten the most attention thus far. The third part of the agreement has received comparatively little notice, but its implications suggest a need for at least a minimal U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that complicates the U.S. commitment to draw down to zero troops.
Implementation of the third section would likely require U.S. military personnel in two ways. The first sentence quoted above is aimed at the idea that once intra-Afghan talks have concluded and a new, “Afghan Islamic government” is in place, it would then have positive bilateral relations with the United States. At a minimum, this would mean a U.S. embassy in Kabul with an ambassador and an official diplomatic mission. A U.S. embassy, though, comes with a protective detail—and that almost always includes uniformed Marines from the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (of the 151 countries in which the United States has a diplomatic mission, Marines help guard facilities in 150 of them).
The second sentence quoted above aims to ensure that Washington will continue to fund reconstruction activities in Afghanistan in the wake of a peace deal between the government and the Taliban. “Reconstruction” is not defined here, nor does the U.S. government have a consistent formal definition of that term. However, the establishing legislation for the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction includes the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund as part of the “amount appropriated or otherwise made available for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.” This fund is the primary vehicle by which the United States provides security-sector assistance to Afghanistan’s army, air force, police and special security forces. At least for the U.S. government, “reconstruction” includes aid from both civilian agencies and those focused on the security sector.
With U.S. reconstruction funding comes the congressional expectation of direct oversight of how that money is being spent. Currently, the United States provides about $4.2 billion of security-sector assistance to Afghanistan, which covers the vast majority of the costs for the country’s army, police, air force and special security forces. Given how poor the country is and that even a reduction of funding by half would result in the dismissal of more than 100,000 military-trained men with limited economic prospects (among other adverse consequences), it seems highly likely that the post-peace Afghan government would still want some degree of U.S. security assistance. But assuaging congressional desires for oversight of this spending would require additional uniformed personnel at least in Kabul, likely in the form of a defense attaché and some kind of security cooperation office.
Taking these observations together, it is clear that for the United States to meet the third part of the agreement, some form of residual uniformed presence will be required in Kabul—at least an embassy security detail and uniformed oversight of security assistance funding.
Beyond these basic requirements, however—and with the understanding that the United States will already have to convince the post-peace Afghan government that positive bilateral relations equates to more than zero U.S. military personnel on the ground—Washington should go one step further. Specifically, it should advocate for the continuance of a small-scale advising mission to Afghanistan’s special security forces and its air force. It should do so for four reasons.
First, these are the most capable and well-respected of Afghanistan’s security forces, so they would likely be the priority for continued development by any post-peace Afghan government. They are also far less corrupt than the country’s army and police forces, due in large part to the consistent and strong partnership they have enjoyed with specific U.S. military units. The air force is also a critical national capability for preventing terrorist groups from openly training and operating, as well as for responding to natural disasters such as floods, which are frequent in Afghanistan. Second, these forces would likely continue to serve as the bulwark of the Afghan state against groups like the Islamic State that everyone—including the United States, the Taliban and the current Afghan government—agrees are threatening. All elements of a post-peace Afghan government would benefit from having them remain operationally effective. Third, the Afghan air force represents a large fraction of the total cost of the country’s security forces, so an advising mission that could provide oversight would be particularly helpful in shoring up congressional support for continued security assistance. And fourth, continued partnership with Afghanistan’s special security forces could serve as a platform for U.S. reentry to the country—at the request of Afghanistan’s government—if the threat of terrorism were to grow to the point that the Islamic State or some similar group gained a major foothold there. An example of the utility of such a relationship is the U.S. partnership with Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, which served as the initial focal point for the U.S. response—at the request of Iraq’s government—to the Islamic State’s establishment of a caliphate in the Middle East.
Some U.S. government leaders, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, have argued for a residual U.S. counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have made clear that they would not accept such a proposition. A continued advisory mission would be distinct from counterterrorism proposals, however, as it would not involve U.S. personnel conducting operations. This might still be a difficult sell to the Taliban, as they have steadfastly maintained that their primary goal is the removal of all international military forces from the country. However, my discussions with individuals involved in past negotiations with the Taliban have indicated that the group might be open to such proposals in the wake of a peace settlement. Which is to say, if the post-peace Afghan government decides to request this kind of support from the United States, Taliban leaders would accept that decision.
Additionally, if the United States offered inducements such as civilian reconstruction assistance in rural areas currently controlled by the Taliban or the integration of some of its elite fighters (the so-called Red Units) into the country’s special security forces, it might prove helpful in convincing Taliban members of a post-peace Afghan government to accept an advisory mission. Some observers in the United States might balk at these types of inducements as unnecessarily rewarding the Taliban, but they seem a small price to pay for the continued protection of U.S. interests in the country, especially compared to the current cost of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan.
Taking all of these arguments together, it seems clear that “zero cannot mean zero” when it comes to the future of the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan, relative to both U.S. interests and those of a post-peace Afghan government. At a minimum, some uniformed presence will be required to secure the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Assuming the post-peace Afghan government would like to avoid having to pay (or find countries other than the United States and its NATO partners to pay) the several billion dollar price tag of its security forces, a U.S. defense attaché and security cooperation office would also be required. If these items are deemed acceptable in the name of positive, bilateral relations, Washington should also pursue the continuation of an advisory mission to Afghanistan’s air force and special security forces. In this way, the United States can better secure its own interests with respect to the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan. It can also better meet the interests of a post-peace Afghan government and its likely desire for normal, positive bilateral relations with the United States and the continued development of key elements of its security forces. And it can prevent “creating a huge vacuum” in Afghanistan by completely and unnecessarily withdrawing all U.S. military forces from the country.