What is driving a remarkable shift in US-Afghan relations?

On Tuesday, President Obama announced that 9,800 US troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2015, a shift from a planned drawdown of troops.

Susan Walsh/AP
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a joint news conference with President Obama, Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Ghani represents Obama's last, best hope to make good on his promise to end America's longest war by the time he leaves office, keeping just a thousand or so troops at the embassy to coordinate security.

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opened his visit to Washington this week by thanking American troops and taxpayers for their years of sacrifice in support of his country, it marked a remarkable shift in the US–Afghan relationship.

That shift is more than just a matter of tone.

There is no comparing the words of Mr. Ghani with the confrontational bearing and suspicious nature of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai was convinced of official US maneuverings against him at every turn, and he railed against what he considered to be American disregard for Afghan sovereignty and the lives of Afghan civilians.

But underpinning the rhetorical shift is a deeper recognition of a new reality in relations between the two countries – one in which Afghanistan is seeking to maintain the financial and military support of a US partner who, after nearly 14 years of war, is increasingly ready to move on.

“No longer is the $17 billion economy trying to wag the tail of the $17 trillion superpower,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues.

Unlike Karzai, who knew Afghanistan was at the top of the US national security agenda in the initial years of the Obama White House, “Ghani is well aware that abandonment is an option for the US,” Mr. O’Hanlon says. “He’s here with a more businesslike manner to make the case for why that’s a bad option.”

There are signs that Ghani, backed by some powerful voices within the administration including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, has won his case – at least to some degree. On Tuesday, President Obama announced that 9,800 US troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2015.

That marks a revision from Mr. Obama's original timetable, which would have halved the 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year and gradually removed the remaining 5,000 by the end of his term in 2017.

As part of the delayed drawdown, US bases in Kandahar in the restive south and in Jalalabad, in the east near Pakistan, are expected to remain open. Obama unveiled the revision today when Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the “chief executive” with whom Ghani is sharing powers, met at the White House.

Obama’s revised drawdown plans take account of both Afghan and US officials’ assessments that the US- and NATO-trained Afghan military and police are not yet ready to stand alone against the Taliban insurgency. Pentagon officials also say this is not the moment for the US to lose the eyes and boots on the ground offered by the two bases that had been slated to close.

Trends in Afghanistan over the last year as Afghan security forces have taken over the fight from US and NATO forces – a spike in Afghan military casualties that US defense officials say is not sustainable, a stubbornly high desertion rate among Afghan soldiers, and an uptick in Afghan civilian deaths – have presented Obama with a dilemma.

He could stick with his timetable for departure from Afghanistan and leave office having ended America’s longest war – but in doing so would he risk an implosion of the US-trained Afghan military and handing off to his successor a disaster on the order of the Iraq collapse?

The revised drawdown plan expected this week is a reflection of that dilemma, regional experts say, although they add that they see no signs that Obama has abandoned his goal of leaving office able to say he ended the Afghanistan war.

“Obama is still talking about leaving fewer than 1,000 military personnel in Afghanistan by the time he leaves office, and I think it’s going to be difficult for him to back off from that,” says Marvin Weinbaum, scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former State Department Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst. “But he has given on the plan to cut US forces in half by the end of this year, and that suggests he’s listening to people like Carter and considering seriously what Ghani has to say.”  

The importance of personalities in such decision-making “should not be underestimated,” Dr. Weinbam says, adding that the departure of Karzai “removed the poison from the relationship” while the arrival of Ghani and Mr. Abdullah – both with long ties to the US – eased Obama’s path to a revised drawdown timetable.

One factor that could play a role in determining the size of the US presence in Afghanistan as Obama leaves office in January 2017 is the degree of Islamic State infiltration, Weinbaum says. “We didn’t have that earlier, but now it’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on,” he says.

Ghani has raised the specter of a growing IS influence, but some experts have speculated that the Afghan leader could be overstating the case to support his objective of extending the US military presence.

Brookings’ O’Hanlon, who has long argued for an extended US presence in Afghanistan, says he expects the delay in the US drawdown to be followed by a “bigger decision next year” on the long-term US relationship with Afghanistan.

“Does Mr. Obama want to go out as the guy who ended our wars, or will he accept being the guy who reduced our war footing and prevented another 9/11, even as he left to his successor a posture including a number of bases in key places from which to address the security threats of the coming years?" he asks.

“I think his heart is in the first scenario,” O’Hanlon says, “but I’m not sure he’ll be able to go with it.”

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