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As Obama meets Karzai, future troop level in Afghanistan isn't only big issue

The meeting Friday at the White House between Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai may lay a foundation for the coming year's negotiations over US role in the country after 2014.

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Speaking with reporters this week, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said keeping no troops in Afghanistan post-2014 “would be an option we would consider.” The goal of concluding a BSA with the Afghan government, he reminded reporters, “is not to keep troops” in the country but to do what's necessary to achieve the two “missions” of continuing to train Afghan forces and to deny Al Qaeda safe havens.

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Obama’s goal is to conclude negotiations on a security agreement by November, Mr. Rhodes said.

Some critics say an agreement that results in only a few thousand US troops in Afghanistan will fail at Obama’s own objectives. A scant US force on the ground won’t be enough either to keep the Afghan Army controlling its own territory or to carry out sufficient counterterrorist operations, insists Fred Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. A proponent of a sizable long-term US presence in Afghanistan, he envisions a US troop level closer to 30,000 troops than to 3,000.

The result of understaffing Afghanistan, he says, will be a steady rise in ungoverned territory ripe for Al Qaeda infiltration.

Also important is what Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbor, thinks of the long-term commitment the US makes to Afghanistan.

The US has long criticized Pakistani authorities for tolerating (and in some cases encouraging) the havens in zones along the Afghan border where the Taliban and Al Qaeda take refuge. But Pakistani authorities who fear a power vacuum in Afghanistan if the US departs tolerate the presence of those groups as a means of maintaining some influence over events across the border, regional experts say.

Securing a long-term US presence in Afghanistan would reassure the Pakistanis, these experts say, and could result in a more robust effort in tackling the problem of Pakistan’s terrorist refuges.

As the US considers a long-term security agreement with Afghanistan, another question is what happens to the civilian development effort that has expanded education across the country, in particular for girls, developed local governance, and improved health programs and other services?

Related to that is what happens to a national economy that is dependent on significant international military and other expenditures that are about to dry up?

Some development experts say a minimal US military presence, designed only to carry out counterterrorist operations and some training of security forces, would curtail if not doom the civilian effort, because the security that civilian aid workers depend on to get out to project sites would be reduced.

A focus simply on the number of US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014 is misplaced, says Anthony Cordesman, a national security and military affairs expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“The civil side of the war is at least as critical as the future role of the US military,” Mr. Cordesman says in a recent post on the CSIS website.

Laying the problem of the “missing civil half” of the “civil-military effort” at the feet of the Obama administration, Mr. Cordesman says Obama will have to offer a comprehensive plan for meeting a range of  Afghanistan’s security, development, and economic challenges if the case is to be made to stay. 

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