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Drawing Down in Afghanistan

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
February 3, 2012

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has offered new details on the U.S. timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan (NYT), stating for the first time the Pentagon's hope to conclude combat missions by as early as mid-2013 and begin the shift to a security assistance role. The defense chief framed the transition, which some see as an acceleration in the pace of withdrawal (WashPost), as an inevitable step toward the fulfillment of NATO's transition strategy. The announcement was greeted with surprise in Kabul, where officials appealed for U.S. forces to stick to the previously agreed timetable for withdrawal (FT).

What's at Stake

Pulling back U.S. troops too early could overwhelm Afghan forces and undermine tenuous negotiations with the Taliban, a central pillar of Washington's exit strategy. A recently leaked NATO report suggests captured Taliban fighters are encouraged by their combat performance, believe they have support within Pakistan, and are confident in their return to power (ArmyTimes). However, NATO officials underscored the inherent bias of the findings.

Instability in Afghanistan could jeopardize the primary U.S. objective in the war of preventing a regeneration of terrorist safe havens. Toward this end, Washington has pledged an enduring presence in the country to implement counterterrorism efforts and provide ongoing training and advising to Afghan forces. But a rapidly deteriorating security environment could cause a highly strategic and potentially volatile part of the world--with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and an increasingly isolated Iran--to plunge into turmoil.

The Debate

The timing of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan continues to feed debate among U.S. security experts. Military analysts Frederick W. and Kimberly Kagan write that the United States risks a return of al-Qaeda bases if the Haqqani network is permitted to keep control of safe havens in Afghanistan. Eradicating these havens, they write, "is a challenge only the American military and one or two of its allies can meet."

If Washington is still planning to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it makes sense for U.S. combat missions to wind down by the end of 2013, writes Mark Thompson at TIME. The timeline shouldn't come as a surprise, he says. "It happened in Iraq, and it's part of an orderly withdrawal." But Marco Vicenzino, writing for The Hill, says Obama's timeline will strengthen the Taliban's negotiating position and embolden the insurgents.

CFR's Stephen Biddle says that in all likelihood, the security situation the Pentagon hands over to the Afghans will yield nothing more than stalemate. The Obama administration is waging a war in which it has little interest, he says.

Policy Options

CFR's Linda Robinson says the best way to stabilize Afghanistan when international forces are drawing down is to place Afghan forces in charge of their own counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts. "Counterinsurgencies are essentially contests for legitimacy that must be won by the government under threat," she writes.

The decision to put a firm date on ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is "long overdue," writes Christopher A. Preble in the National Interest. Washington should have transitioned to a limited counterterrorism mission many years ago--one that employs intelligence, special operations, and technological advantages such as drones, he writes.

Background Materials

This Congressional Research Service report examines post-Taliban governance in Afghanistan, the security situation, and U.S. policy in the region.

This CFR Interactive looks at the ten-year war in Afghanistan.

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