Janine A. Davidson, Former Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
There are good reasons to worry about a precipitous departure of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The country remains fragile and the Taliban still threaten key areas. Withdrawing all troops would leave the Afghans to fend for themselves against a resurgent Taliban. And because the United States uses its presence to monitor and target al-Qaeda and other threats, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons from the region, leaving the country completely would mean having less warning or ability to respond.
But Afghans would suffer most amidst rising violence when aid workers and investment dollars follow foreign troops to the exits. The hard-won gains from 12 years of fighting and $17 billion in economic assistance could be lost if the country slides into another violent civil war, potentially reverts to Taliban rule, and al-Qaeda reclaims its former safe haven.
Building Afghanistan's security forces to the point where they can operate on their own will still take time. Today, there are 38,000 U.S. and 19,000 NATO troops serving in Afghanistan training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces, both military and police. These institutions did not even exist 12 years ago. Since 2009, the number of Afghan security forces has grown from 100,000 poorly equipped and minimally trained troops to a force of nearly 350,000, which is now planning and executing 95 percent of daily patrols. Despite this impressive growth, these troops are still mostly illiterate and they lack supporting airpower, intelligence, and medical capabilities. Moreover, their institutional ability to train and pay personnel or resupply units is weak. Armed, illiterate, and unpaid soldiers are a volatile mix, as young men who need to feed hungry families will be tempted to switch sides to survive. Although the trajectory is positive, these forces are not yet ready to fly solo.