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Debating the Afghan Mission

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
June 10, 2011


President Barack Obama is preparing to make a decision on the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July of this year. The announcement will mark the first stage of the drawdown the White House laid out in December 2009, with troop reductions and the transfer of security to Afghan personnel set to be complete by the end of 2014. In the lead up to the president's announcement, debate is stirring in Washington between those calling for gradual reductions (NYT)--the position of outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates--and some Democratic lawmakers who are pushing for a more significant drawdown. Republicans are also raising new questions about the mission in Afghanistan.

With the current U.S. commitment at roughly one hundred thousand troops, some reports have suggested the Pentagon would begin reductions with five thousand in July and another five thousand by the end of the year. The White House has said that the July drawdown will be "real" and the final decision will be based on "conditions on the ground" lining up with the president's stated objectives of defeating al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan.

Beyond the troop numbers, debate has intensified over the purpose of the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, heightened by the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan. Mounting concern over the U.S. debt crisis has also focused new attention on spending in the Afghan war theater, estimated at about $2 billion per day. In the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing for Defense Secretary nominee Leon Panetta, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) questioned the scope of the mission (WashPost). "I don't see how we get to a stable state in Afghanistan,'' she said.


In a separate nomination hearing for the president's designated ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, Senator Robert Corker (R-TN) raised similar concerns (Bloomberg). "All of us know the model we have in Afghanistan is not sustainable for multiple reasons," he told the Foreign Relations Committee. "There's a great degree of us knowing this is not sustainable."

In statements (PDF) made at his confirmation hearing in the Senate, Crocker endorsed a scaled-back U.S. presence and called for a political solution to the conflict. However, Crocker warned that the United States had abandoned Afghanistan previously in 1989 with "disastrous consequences," and recommended the United States not repeat this mistake. Panetta emphasized the need to "keep the pressure up" on al-Qaeda (AFP) and ensure the country does not again deteriorate into a terrorist safe haven.

Selected Analysis

In the Wall Street Journal, analysts Kimberly and Frederick Kagan write that the war in Afghanistan is at its peak but also highly fragile, suggesting a rapid troop reduction will squander progress made by the surge.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius discusses the drawdown debate and asserts that troop reduction should be a function of the U.S. strategic plan, "not the other way around."

In this recent Senate testimony, CFR's Richard N. Haass voices skepticism at the U.S. potential to achieve some of its stated goals in Afghanistan, including building an Afghan government in the next few years that can hold off the Taliban. He recommends a rapid transition to a smaller, sustainable U.S. troop commitment capable of maintaining counterterrorism operations and training for Afghan forces.

In this Senate testimony, CFR's Stephen Biddle says the United States faces a dilemma in that it cannot indefinitely sustain current troop levels, but must avoid fueling the perception of Afghan abandonment. He suggests Washington pursue a "mixed sovereignty" model for the country that regulates the existing "strongman" ruling structure--a strategy he asserts will require less international oversight. However, he cautions that a stable Afghanistan is unlikely without some sustained U.S. role.

In Foreign Affairs, Robert Blackwill writes that a de facto partition of Afghanistan, in which Washington pursues nation building in the north and counterterrorism in the south, offers an acceptable alternative plan.


This CFR interactive timeline examines the events that precipitated the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the history of the war.

This CFR Independent Task Force report assesses U.S. objectives, strategy, and policy options in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It supports a long-term partnership with Pakistan, calls for a new approach to Afghan political reform, and says a more limited U.S. mission in Afghanistan is warranted if the present strategy does not progress.

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