2014 Drawdown: What Does It Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia?

With the date for U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan fast approaching, the main mission for the Obama administration and the international forces in Afghanistan is to assure that Afghan forces are ready and able for the transition. The complications of the transfer have already begun due to growing mistrust between U.S. military leaders and forces and their Afghan counterparts due to the problematic increase in attacks on U.S. forces by their Afghan training partners. As a result of the attacks, joint troop trainings between the U.S. and Afghanistan, an integral component to the transfer, were suspended for a period of time. Though eventually reinstated, the program has been altered slightly in order to protect American soldiers. Relations with the Afghani government have also soured, with the U.S. refusal to fully hand over the Bagram prison a recent source of troubles. The combination of the Taliban’s resurgence, a growing drug trade, and the high possibility of a civil war, has led many to question whether or not the administration and especially the military really intends to pull out of the country.  In the coming period before the official withdrawal, the U.S. is focusing its resources on not only the Afghan government, but its neighbors, India and Pakistan, as the roles they play in the region will be integral to maintaining stability. The next two years will be important, as the administration will have to deal with a multitude of issues that could put a successful transition at great risk.

Upcoming Elections: While the ability of Afghan security troops to take over without U.S. assistance is an ongoing concern, and many have discussed the troubling implications of Afghanistan’s current economic dependency on aid, The Economist sees the political transition in 2014 as the most concerning event for a successful 2014 transition. The article notes that the preliminary draft of the strategic partnership agreement (SPA), as well as, the meeting of military recruitment targets by the Afghan Security Forces provides some evidence that the military and economic situations, while concerning, are not dire. And while it remains important that the country continues to receive aid in order to create a smooth economic transition, the most worrying transition post-2014, according to a report from the International Crisis Group, will be the political elections in Afghanistan. The report outlines a pessimistic outlook on the situation and warns about the high potential for election fraud, rigging and post-election instability.

Possibility of Civil War and Security Capabilities: Economic aid for the region from the U.S., NATO and other nations has increased greatly in the years after 9/11; as much as ninety-seven percent of Afghan GDP is dependent on military and development aid. However, the fear by Afghans and other leading agencies, such as the World Bank, about dependency on aid and troops has left many concerned about what that dependency would mean for security within the country post drawdown. Partly due to low funds and partly due to the Afghan’s feelings of abandonment, many journalists see the collapse into civil war not as a “possibility” but as an imminent fact upon American troop withdrawal. Richard Engels of NBC news stated “…I spoke to some Tajik villagers outside Kabul, who promised me they would start fighting once American troops leave.” A senior figure in Hizb-i-Islami, Ghairat Baheer, told the Daily Telegraph, “…I don’t think the national army and national police will be able to resist. They don’t have the morale…It will lead to civil war.” Much of the concerns focus on the Afghan Army and its ability to shed its dependency on American forces and act independently once the American combat troops leave.

However, other experts, especially amongst U.S. officials, do not believe that civil war is imminent. Citing the international community’s commitment to Afghan stability, Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, has said that he considers the possibility of civil war or economic instability “unlikely scenarios.” Journalist Robert Dreyfuss has called these claims as “foolhardy” and declares that while civil war is certainly a possible outcome, successful peace talks and war-weary Afghan citizens make it less likely to occur. Javid Ahmad, Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, points to Washington ambiguity as the source of these anxieties and urges the administration and others to “clarify its role beyond 2014 and clearly stipulate a set of scenarios it will adopt should the Afghan security and political transitions not go as well as planned.”

The Taliban: Central to questions about civil war is the role of Taliban forces in the region. Abandonment of Afghanistan has led many senior British military officials to worry that this will embolden the Taliban and allow them to take over once more.  Earlier this year, it seemed that inclusion of Taliban leaders in peace talks was not possible due to bipartisan congressional opposition to a negotiated a prisoner swap.  Those, such as national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, who believe that peace talks with the Taliban are essential to the 2014 withdrawal, saw this as a tragic mistake. Post-election, however, the administration seems willing to restart negotiations despite resistance from both the U.S. military and the opposition forces. Recent reports have Taliban representatives attending meetings with other Afghan players in Paris to discuss the future. Though just an initial meeting, the administration hopes that peace negotiations can be reinstated.

Involvement of India and Pakistan: Successful efforts in Afghanistan will also hinge on the participation of its neighbors, Pakistan and India. Issues between the United States and Pakistan have increased steadily over the past few years, culminating with the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan by American forces. However, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban has made it a key player in strategic talks over the future of Afghanistan. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan remarked that, “The only way to defeat the Taliban is to make it worth the Pakistanis’ while to help—to make them calculate that clamping down is both feasible and in their security interests.” Furthermore, the Telegraph reports that the Afghan High Peace Council views Pakistan as the natural successor to Washington to direct peace efforts. However, disappointment in Pakistan has led U.S. officials to look to India as the stabilizing force in Afghanistan. Shared concerns over Islamic extremists and stable governance has pivoted Washington’s attentions away from Pakistan towards India.  Relations between India and Afghanistan, supported by the U.S. and NATO, have strengthened with the two signing a strategic partnership agreement in 2011; this is in addition to increases in aid provided to Afghanistan by the Indian government

Costs of War Report Released

This week CIP senior fellow, Bill Hartung, and the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies released the most thorough report to date on the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Conducted by over twenty academics from wide-ranging fields, the study forces the public to consider the consequences of the wars and question what, if anything, has been gained over the last ten years.  The report considers other options the US could have employed and concludes that these options, which would have been cheaper and likely more effective, were hardly considered before the US engaged militarily. The primary recommendation of the study is the US to increase transparency to the public “because information facilitates democratic deliberation and effective decision-making.”

The findings of the report conclude that the costs of the two wars amount to more than $3.2 – 4 trillion spent (and obligated to be spent) and 225,000 killed.  Among the 225,000 dead, which the study lists as its conservative estimate, are 6,000 US soldiers, 2,300 US contractors, and 20,000 US allies, including Iraqi and Afghan security forces as well as other coalition members.  In civilian lives in Iraq and Afghan, the cost to date is 137,000 not including the often over-looked number of civilians killed in the violence in Pakistan.  In economic terms, the costs of war are much greater than the defense appropriations suggest.  The study includes the war-related spending by the VA and the State Department/USAID, increased federal spending on homeland security, and interest payments on the money borrowed to finance the war.  Beyond these dollar amounts, the increase in military spending and in the federal debt affects interest rates, employment, and investment.

Laudably, the study also addresses the social, political, and environmental costs of the wars.  The study found that the wars have been “accompanied by the erosion of civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.”  The US invasions have failed to bring democracy to Iraq, where segregation by gender and ethnicity has increased, and Afghanistan, where corruption is rampant and warlords retain political clout.

Click here to read CIP’s press release.
Click here to read the full report on the Costs of War website.

By Alyssa Warren.

Obama’s Dilemma: He can’t please the Doves nor the Hawks. But seeks a middle course and keeps his word

President Obama has a difficult set of options to choose from in his effort to draw down our troops in Afghanistan and at the same time leave that country in a responsible way — but as soon as can be managed. He needs to provide for regional stability and security which is a vital interest of this nation given the nuclear weapons in Pakistan. The latter is the elephant in the room that only a few commentators are talking about or addressing seriously.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of pure right-wing hawks are wrong in their criticism of Obama’s “moderate” decision and their push for an “endless war.”   They have shown blindness to the difficult situation in Afghanistan and the need for an “end point” in our present strategy.  But a lot of doves are wrong in not dealing honestly with alternative policies and consequences to address the realistic threats to our regional and global security. 

Obama’s speech was short and, frankly, a bit vague on specifics and broad policy.  I suspect that the administration is still now trying to assess their options and work the diplomatic front. They want to keep, for a time, some of their leverage in the region. They fear, rightly, a form of high instability, chaos, and dangers in the region.  They fear what has been described as “precipitous withdrawal,” as opposed to a steady withdrawal related to “facts on the ground,” which is a phrase that the military uses, and leaving with some hope that a kind of stable governance and security can be created. Some silliness has recently been written about the Nixon withdrawal or retreat – choose your own words – in Vietnam as a model.  But the main concern remains that Pakistan does not fall into a terrorist playground and worse.

My judgment is that Obama chose the least worst option while keeping his promise to make a significant drawdown and was firm about the next stages of that action. The military wanted just 3,000 to leave at the end of the year and the doves wanted an almost impossible 30,000. They got that and a bit more for the end of 2012.

That gives America time to continue to keep pressure on the Taliban and Al -Qaeda.  The military can continue to try to establish areas of security and perhaps a bit of local government and still train a poor yet slightly more effective army and police. Those who think that will never occur reasonably want out, but they fail to acknowledge the price of that simple withdrawal option on our larger interests in the region, which go far beyond Afghanistan itself. 

The hawks are making an impossible case with their idea that we can keep largely 100,000 combat troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. They are either crazy or they are playing politics and especially trying to bring Obama down on the war issue with our national security and the lives of our soldiers at stake. There is little doubt that we do not need that number on the ground if we are seeking reasonable stability and preventing terrorists to freely attack us or our allies from Afghanistan. Obama, I believe, understands that but is looking at what can only be described as a most complex and dangerous region still at a crossroad and wants to act with great care. His approach has shown great caution against acting hastily and keeping his options open.

That may not be a bad approach, but it remains for the moment still inadequate until a strategy and consequent policies and actions are taken to implement a wider resolution to the region’s dangers. This means a “full court press” on establishing a regional settlement that addresses the conflicting motivations and concerns of the regional actors.

The critics are right, however, that the present Afghanistan government is corrupt and is probably the largest stumbling block to some kind of national reconciliation and reasonable government authority. It is not likely to be better than what we see today without some radical “re-engendering.” And I am not sure that we can create this by 2014. But the reality is we need a strategy that gets us to some measure of security in the region and has us withdraw our combat forces in a deliberate but steady way as we set in place our creative diplomacy to create some reasonable security and political order.

By Harry C. Blaney III.