On March 24, President Obama announced that the United States will not begin an additional troop drawdown until 2016, marking another instance where he delayed his timetable for bringing the troop count below 10,000. In 2011, the White House stated that U.S. forces would be cut from 10,000 to roughly 5,000 in 2014, with a complete transfer of power to the Afghan National Security Forces a few years after. Now, after the President extended the deadline an additional time, the prospects for a full troop withdrawal are narrower. While counterintuitive to what many may desire, maintaining a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is completely necessary at this time.
Although great progress has been made in Afghanistan – as the United States handed over control to the Afghan forces and the amount of Taliban attacks has dropped immensely – the insurgent group still poses a legitimate threat to Afghanistan’s security at this crucial time in its history. The Afghans elected Ashraf Ghani as president only six months ago in hopes of security improvements. Although he gained power with assertive goals to boost his country, he has not gotten off to a strong start, especially since he often disagrees with Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, according to the Wall Street Journal. Internal political issues have even prevented President Ghani from choosing a Defense Minister, which makes securing the country and lessening the threat of the Taliban more difficult than they need to be.
Even though the Taliban is weaker overall, it carries out many more attacks during the spring and summer months, making the timing of Obama’s March address appropriate. Since the weather improves in the spring, the Taliban can mobilize more easily. Generally speaking, there have been fewer Taliban assaults in the past year than in previous years, but there has been a slight upturn lately. U.S. Major General Mike Murray predicts that this fighting season will be more severe than last, according to Army Times.
Since both the strength of the Taliban year-to-year and the annual fighting times are dynamic, it is particularly difficult to set an appropriate deadline for changing the amount of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, especially when calling the shots a year or more in advance. In 2011, it seemed adequate to further draw down troops in 2014; when the year came, the U.S. realized it needed more time. If there is any uncertainty regarding the strength of the Taliban, as there appears to be now, the United States should not withdraw any more troops.
Even though only 10,000 troops remain, further withdrawing from Afghanistan could have unintended consequences, similar to what the U.S. faced upon exiting Iraq. U.S. forces left Iraq entirely in 2011 in what was far from a unanimous decision in the U.S. government. By 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) had a stronger presence in Iraq than ever before. If the United States had maintained a small, yet somewhat permanent military presence in Iraq after it withdrew its troops, the country could have been more prepared in dealing with Islamic State forces.
The White House and Afghan President Ghani know that they must avoid a repeat of this in Afghanistan, even if it means maintaining a U.S. presence indefinitely. While the Taliban on its own is a large threat to Afghan democracy, what makes the situation worse is that many Taliban fighters are switching allegiance to ISIS. The Islamic State has a stronger global presence than the Taliban, and the United States and Afghan forces likely cannot predict future ISIS involvement in Afghanistan.
Much is uncertain in Afghanistan. The strength of the Afghan security, threat of the Taliban and the influence of ISIS are all in question for the years to come. To make sure the United States does not leave Afghanistan vulnerable and have a repeat of the ISIS growth in Iraq, the safest bet is for the U.S. to leave the 10,000 troops indefinitely, especially when President Ashraf Ghani is such a willing partner. The White House knows it cannot afford to let another monster grow in Afghanistan. It should demonstrate this understanding by not creating any additional unnecessary commitments of withdrawing troops.