Soldiers with the Guam Army National Guard leave Camp Phoenix, Kabul
Soldiers with the Guam Army National Guard leave Camp Phoenix, Kabul // U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Eddie Siguenza

Planning for Withdrawal in Afghanistan May Be Smart, But It’s Not Wise

Votes are still being counted in Afghanistan’s presidential election, but preliminary results suggest that no candidate won a majority. If these results hold up and no backroom deals are cooked up between Afghan politicians, a runoff poll will follow and the victor will not likely be declared until late summer. That timeline is making U.S. and NATO military planners very nervous.

A delay of several months would have little consequence if not for the problem of the unsigned Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul. Without it, President Barack Obama has told President Hamid Karzai that the United States will remove all of its military forces from Afghanistan by year’s end. Karzai has steadfastly refused to sign the accord and no one expects him to change his mind now.

Despite the impasse with Karzai, U.S. and other NATO military leaders have so far held fast to the hope that Afghanistan’s next president will sign the BSA. That would enable a total force of between 8,000 to 12,000 troops to train, advise, and assist the Afghans over several more years in a mission dubbed “Operation Resolute Support.” Hope has been bolstered by the fact that both of Afghanistan’s top presidential contenders have pledged to sign the BSA. NATO planners believe they can keep the Resolute Support option open until roughly mid-September. After that, the logistics of moving troops and supplies out of Afghanistan will require them to begin a complete pullout or risk a humiliating, last minute exodus.

Some policymakers in Brussels and Washington fear that even if Afghanistan’s next president is declared victorious in July or August, he might not sign the BSA as his first act in office. He might have his own difficult, possibly even unacceptable, demands for Washington. By the time those negotiations begin, he might also feel that NATO’s commitment for a follow-on force can be taken for granted and so will press for maximum concessions.

Driven by these concerns, some policymakers are arguing that NATO should shift its stance. They suggest that rather than continuing to threaten a full departure if the BSA is not signed in time, U.S. and NATO forces should immediately start the process of a complete drawdown.

This proposal is tactically and politically smart. It would clarify NATO’s logistical planning, something U.S. and allied forces crave. It would also force Afghanistan’s next president to negotiate on terms more favorable to the U.S. and NATO if he chooses to sign the BSA or a similar agreement.

And a military pullout need not mean a complete U.S. departure from Afghanistan; U.S. contractors, civilians, and CIA operatives could find other ways to work in Afghanistan—keeping counter-terror missions running and the spigot of assistance turned on—by cutting different deals with Kabul. And by starting a full departure now, NATO would hedge against a foreseeable diplomatic fiasco at its next summit in early September, since a BSA could be framed as an encouraging success with Afghanistan’s new government, while no BSA would be framed as simply sticking to the plan.

But smart is not always wise.

The “smart” solution means telling Afghans, Americans, and the rest of the world that NATO’s operative military plan has truly shifted from Resolute Support to a complete military pullout by Dec. 31: a “zero option.” That shift would come at a considerable cost.

In the context of a hopeful but still-uncertain political transition in Kabul, the zero option announcement from NATO would be deflating, at best. At worst, it would confirm the longstanding and historically grounded Afghan fear of abandonment. Although weary of war, all survey and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Afghan public also prefers a gradual NATO departure to a precipitous one. On this score, Karzai is an unrepresentative outlier, joined only by the Taliban.

No close observer of Afghanistan’s security forces believes they are completely ready to stand without financial and organizational support from international forces. To its credit—and contrary to its many detractors—the Afghan army can fight the Taliban and will likely continue to do so, as long as its bills are paid. But the army can’t yet balance its books, maintain its facilities, or train its senior officers. That will require at least another year of U.S. and NATO military presence, if not front-line fighting.

Most important, U.S. and NATO policymakers should bear in mind that insurgencies are games of public perception. Starting a full military withdrawal would be a propaganda victory for Afghanistan’s insurgents and for their sympathizers in Pakistan. The Taliban suffered a serious political blow from Afghanistan’s high voter turnout on election day; that positive momentum should not be squandered. All other regional players, including India and China, have also expressed a strong desire to see a gradual, responsible NATO military departure and continued international commitment to Afghanistan as a means to improve its chances of long-term peace and stability.

Finally, a zero option would be tough to reverse. Once it becomes the operative plan, it is doubtful that Obama, who counted ending “America’s longest war” as an applause line in his State of the Union address, would be willing to move back to a Resolute Support mission, even if Afghanistan’s next president chooses to sign a BSA after all.

In short, a “smart” policy would put the onus for NATO’s military withdrawal on Karzai and would also hold short-term political and diplomatic benefits. A wiser course, however, would be to appreciate how deflating and inflexible such a shift would be, even if it requires a steady hand through the next several months of political uncertainty.

Daniel Markey is Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad.