Are We Moving to a Discreet Counterterrorism Mission in Afghanistan?

January 14, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a joint press conference last week in Washington D.C. to announce that U.S. troops would move into a support role in Afghanistan starting this Spring. This puts the Afghanistan military in the lead a few months ahead of schedule.

The United States has been debating for some time on how best to end its involvement in Afghanistan’s conflict, and accelerating the transition in Afghanistan from NATO and U.S. control to Afghan control will affect the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

Any residual American forces left in Afghanistan after the United States formally ends its combat mission there in 2014 will probably number between three and nine thousand. I’ve heard that any troop levels below ten thousand would only be expected to conduct a discreet counterterrorism mission inside that country using drones strikes. The U.S. Defense Department has said that it would take a force of thirty thousand U.S. troops or more to continue any boots on the ground operations. To compare numbers, the U.S. currently has sixty-eight thousand troops inside Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers

Afghanistan’s central government will suffer after U.S. troop withdrawals. Tribal rivalries, Taliban insurgency, as well as less foreign aid and support will constrain the central government’s ability to govern its outside provinces.

According to a recent Pentagon report, only one of the Afghan military’s thirty-one battalions is considered to be trained to the point that it is ready for unilateral combat. The other thirty battalions lack the ability to battle insurgents without substantial NATO support. With the exception of this one battalion, the Afghan military has failed time and again to sustain itself in battle.

If outside provinces do fall into Taliban or other insurgent’s hands, that may make it easier for the remaining U.S. forces to target said insurgency’s command structure. Controlling a province requires a governmental structure and oversight that could draw insurgent commanders out in the open and expose their movements.

Whatever the size, some contingent of American troops will remain in Afghanistan.

Other funding aside, Mr. Karzai needs the United States to continue providing the $2.5 billion a year that the Afghan government uses to keep its soldiers paid, clothed, and armed. When American soldiers finally do leave completely, the U.S. government will have no reason to continue providing that country with foreign aid; therefore, Karzai laid the groundwork for ongoing negotiations on his trip to the U.S. last week. He hopes to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan so that he can keep U.S. funds in Afghanistan.

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