US Exit Plan : from Iraq to Afghanistan
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy issues, and author of the Great Decisions 2012 article Exit from Afghanistan and Iraq. He spoke with Sarah Marion Shore about the current state of the drawdown in both countries.
1. The draft of a new strategic partnership with Afghanistan calls for a decade of continued U.S. presence and financial support following the 2014 withdrawal. How significant and substantial is this proposed agreement?
It is significant because it underscores that we’re not, in this president’s mind at least, racing for the exit. Given what happened after the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan 23 years ago, that’s important, because after we helped defeat the Soviets, we did abandon the place, and that created a certain form of paranoia and bad memory on the part of a lot of the same Afghans and Pakistanis we’re dealing with now. It has certainly become part of the folklore of how they think about America’s steadfastness or lack thereof, so it’s pretty important that we send a strong message.
Now this agreement does not commit us to any specific level of help or troop presence, but it is nonetheless a suggestion that we will have a major stake in the success of Afghanistan, even after we’ve gone. And that by itself implies a certain amount of help, because Afghanistan’s going to need it– it’s not a rich country and it has some challenging security dilemmas. And so by our saying that this is still important to us after 2014 sends a quite useful message. It could actually be a pretty substantial boost to the overall progress of the mission.
We’ll have to wait and see, but the theory is that with that confidence of a sustained American commitment to Afghanistan, its people will feel more positive about their future, less worried about warlordism, less inclined to start fighting each other along ethnic lines, and Pakistan will feel less inclined to start supporting the insurgents again even after we’ve gone because it will recognize that we’re still going to stay engaged and try and help the new government stay on its feet. So you hope that these messages will really make a difference.
2. Recent negative reports from Afghanistan, including a soldier’s unprovoked massacre and the burning of Korans, has led to strong criticisms of the U.S. in Afghanistan. Is the escalation of anti-American rhetoric a sign that the U.S. should reevaluate its exit timetable?
There was only one episode in which a deliberate American action led to Afghan deaths, of course that was Sgt. Bales, and that was 17 people, which is horrible, but a very small fraction of the overall number of war casualties. In general, NATO has been taking more and more care in its use of force, going back to General McChrystal, then General Petraeus, and now General Allen. And when General Allen was in town last month to testify, he said that the number of casualties caused this year so far by NATO forces is actually down by at least 50 percent relative to the same period last year. The United States and NATO have been taking great strides to improve our protection of Afghan civilians and in fact that trend has continued in the last few months and actually picked up steam, despite the Bales tragedy.
Due to the combined efforts of Afghan and NATO forces, violence is down about 20 percent this year compared to the same period last year. We’ve also had continued growth in the Afghan army and police, which make it within about 20,000 of its intended final size, and it’s continuing to do more and more in the field and take the lead on a higher and higher percentage of operations. You now have 137 Afghan battalions out of a total of 168 that are considered to be in one of the top three tiers of performance. That’s not necessarily fantastic, but it’s a lot better than it was. It’s also allowing us to reduce our forces, because we’re already headed in a gradual way for an exit. We’re going to have 22,000 fewer troops at the end of September than we have right now. So in military terms the strategy is working, in political terms it’s quite challenged, but in military terms it’s working.
I’m aware that for an American audience there is an impression with all these cascading problems in Afghanistan, that the whole thing is sort of falling apart. This general concern is very valid, and I think that does need a lot of attention. We really needed these three victories that we’ve now had in the last couple of months, with the prisons being transferred to Afghan control, with the night raid responsibilities being transferred primarily to Afghan control, and now with the strategic partnership agreement being signed. We need to keep achieving those kind of positive news developments to counter the impression of a floundering mission and all the terrible stories, which by the way are always going to happen in a war.
One idea that I like that I heard just about a week ago is that President Karzai said he was thinking of accelerating the presidential elections in Afghanistan to next year, instead of 2014, and that he would step down, because he would have reached the end of his second term. I think that’s actually a pretty interesting idea. It would avoid giving people the sense that he’s trying to stay president for life. It would avoid creating a sense that we’re still working with a guy who is difficult and unsuccessful, and it would avoid overloading 2014 with all the big transitions all at once. We need more positive breakthroughs, more positive developments like that in Afghanistan.
3. Violence has also risen recently in Iraq; did the U.S. leave its mission there too soon?
I would have preferred that we stay longer, yes, and I was on record advocating that all last year. But I think it was ultimately the Iraqi parliament that told us that we were not really welcome. They said that we could not have a status of forces agreement that would protect American military personnel from immunity from Iraqi law. That may sound unreasonable, why would we need immunity? But we have a pretty good military court system and we think it’s pretty important for our service men and women to know that if they’re serving abroad that they will be treated in a sense, like diplomats, and that means that any kind of discipline that’s needed will be administered by their own country; that’s the arrangement we have with most other countries around the world.
In the end I think the Iraqis made a decision, and I think we have to respect it. Unfortunately there are some risks, but I don’t know that the level of violence is all that horrible. There have been some pretty bad days, but the overall level of violence has not gotten much worse. But I think Iraq’s politics are in jeopardy, the ability of the different groups to work together is under pretty severe stress. So yes, it could turn out badly, but I don’t think we have too many options for what to do about it at this point.
4. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, what is the state of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Neither one of them has a large al-Qaeda presence with designs on the United States. They both have plenty of extremists with designs on their own county, and sometimes on their neighboring countries, but in the short term, I would say we don’t have a lot of terrorist groups on these countries’ soils that we have to worry about. But you do have the worry in Afghanistan that if you leave too soon, or in Iraq if it all falls apart, you could have the kind of chaos and mayhem that created the opportunity for al-Qaeda in the first place. But right now I think al-Qaeda is more threatening in Pakistan and maybe Yemen.
5. What can we expect to see from the upcoming NATO summit with regard to Afghanistan?
I think the NATO summit will be important for codifying some of the same ideas that we see now in this U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, but I don’t think it will go a whole lot beyond that because most countries are not going to want to make firm commitments. You may see NATO willing to make a collective promise to support Afghanistan, and that would be nice, but I don’t think it will matter that much, because it will be vague and it will be multilateral. It would be nice to see some commitments of actual money, for Afghan army and police support, for example, or Afghan economic development, and if we saw some specific numbers. It will be useful, but relatively modest until we actually see some concrete pledges and concrete help in the years ahead.