Why the United States Won’t Need Troops in Afghanistan After 2014

U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers board an Air Force C-130 as they depart Afghanistan. Image: U.S. Department of Defense

General Joseph Dunford, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, has recently told the New York Times that America’s “presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.” His reasoning was that although the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are bearing the brunt of fighting, “at the end of 2014, [they] won’t be completely independent” operationally and logistically.

Since the Obama Administration is already considering either a “zero option”—whereby there will be no American troops after 2014—or an earlier withdrawal, General Dunford’s plea for America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan will not likely be taken seriously. For one, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 67 percent of Americans surveyed believe that the Afghan War is not worth fighting. Moreover, the recent video conference between President Obama and President Karzai proved that their relationship has deteriorated considerably due to lack of trust and miscommunication.

Yet, the issue of what the United States should do in Afghanistan is still intensely debated among foreign policy mavens. Dov S. Zakheim, a former Department of Defense official, argues that the “nature of commitment in absence of a troop presence” may deal a blow to ISAF’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, and may even take away “incentives” from the Taliban “to pursue talks with the Afghan government.” Ryan Evans, Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest, also sees the strained relationship between the Obama and Karzai administrations as “a consequence of larger problems in the U.S.-Afghan relationship…[which] stem[med] from President Obama’s misprioritization of U.S. aims in Afghanistan.” While Evans does not rule out a settlement with the Taliban, he believes that it must be done in such a way that does not “obfuscate” America’s continued presence in Afghanistan past 2014 to contain terrorist networks and to provide stability in Af-Pak. To these arguments must also be added another possible “game-changer.” In the wake of Hassan Rowhani’s landslide victory as Iran’s new president, some foreign policy mavens now envision a positive shift in favor of America’s primacy in the Greater Middle East, and to a lesser extent, its prosecution of war against terror.

Whatever the case may be, two things are clear. First, in the face of grim fiscal realities, the United States must fight smarter to contain terrorist networks. Second, the United States should allow the Afghan people to figure out for themselves how they want to live.

With respect to the first, the United States can successfully contain terrorist networks without massive troop presence in Af-Pak. In the face of drastic sequestration cuts in the upcoming fiscal years, it makes sense to work with whosoever will rule Afghanistan while adopting selective targeting of America’s adversaries. Thus, in addition to unilaterally employing SOF (Special Operations Forces) commandos and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to track and kill terrorists, the United States can, assuming that the Taliban returns to power, establish a good rapport with the Taliban regime by “limiting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.”

As regards the second, according to Afghan journalist Ahmad Shafi, Afghan people have, thanks in no small measure to the American occupation, become integrated into the global community and have, therefore, become more sophisticated and cognizant of global affairs. In fact, Shafi wrote in June that while the Western media likes to “embellish” the threat of an impending civil war, most Afghans “‘beg to differ en masse’ on the magnitude of threat posed…by a bunch of violent extremists, whose grim visions are so far away from the realities of today’s Afghanistan.” One reason for this “discrepancy” between Western media perceptions and those of Afghan citizens, according to Shafi, is due to “radically different” political dynamics at play whereby the warlords and the Taliban find it “increasingly difficult” to connect with the new generation of Afghan citizens most of whom are under the age of 25. Simply stated, it is too early to draw premature conclusions about the supposedly ominous fate awaiting our Ngo Dinh Diem in Kabul or ordinary Afghan citizens.

Despite the gloomy assessment by General Dunford that the United States needs to extend its troop commitment past the 2014 deadline, there is little reason to worry. True, as Zachary Keck argues, “there are no ideal conclusions to the Afghan conflict available” at present. Nevertheless, the much-feared Taliban takeover may or may not take place. And even if the Taliban successfully returns to power, one way or the other, the United States can work with the fundamentalist regime to contain the international terrorist network. As to the now-common comparisons between a possible Taliban takeover and those of the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge victories in April 1975, only time can tell how the events will unfold. In the end, no matter the outcome, the Afghan citizens, as with Vietnamese and Cambodians before them, will sort out their own fate.

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea. He is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). In addition to his regular contribution for GJIA Online, Lee’s writings have appeared in the Naval Institute’s blog, East Asia Forum, and the World Outline.

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8 comments to Why the United States Won’t Need Troops in Afghanistan After 2014 by Jeong Lee

  • […] This post was originally published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Read the original post here. […]

  • [...] This article was originally published in its original form in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and was cross-posted by permission. Read the original post here. [...]

  • [...] Note: This article was originally published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and is cross-posted with expressed permission from the said journal. Read the original post here. [...]

  • Well, Jeong, I have to disagree about how we treat people in other countries not being in our own national interests. United States based multinational companies rely heavily on foreign investments to drive their bottom line down so they can survive, which against popular understanding actually brings more higher level jobs here in areas such as accounting, warehousing, shipping, and marketing. To not consider the needs of the people of Afghanistan while forming exit strategies is not only immoral but fiscally irresponsible.

    To eliminate a potential major partner for our business interests is not in our countries best interest, even as our economy has been shaky for years now. I don’t see how a politico of any ilk can say that the people do not care in a country that we had so much of a hand in destroying physically. I never believed in the domino effect, especially when the Vietnam Conflict “broke out” as we entered with military advisers to the French. You don’t consider action that prevents or limits potential genocide a national concern? Millions died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge because the world stepped aside and did nothing to stop the insanity, similar to atrocities that occurred in recent times in Africa.

    Our reputation as a country in the world has taken a serious hit with the attitude that what happens to people in our “occupied” countries doesn’t matter, only political repercussions and isolationist self interest matter.

    Politically we are much better off as a country/nation to lead the world by example of our cultural sensitivities as a nation that has been built on the backs of immigrants from all over the world. Real politics is not short sighted, and given to understanding the interconnectedness that is growing at a rapid pace among nations. What happens 10,000 miles away from our border affects our economy in significant ways, not from a domino effect of political paranoia, but from how families who have relatives and friends still in those countries view how they are treated.

    We are on the same page regarding the lack of need of U.S. Troop presence, however. Troops show that we have fear and paranoia, volunteer peace makers with knowledge sharing capabilities shows caring; and in the eyes of the world, which watch our every action or inaction, what we do reflects on what we are as a nation.

    If we create an environment in Afghanistan of suspicion and hatred by the people left behind, who do you really think we are hurting? We often as a country forget that all we do has positive or negative repercussions.

    Thanks again for allowing me to share my thoughts on “real politics” and global connectedness as a real self-interest.


  • Thank you for your comments. Again, I see the world through the lens of realpolitik. And that dictates that we do what is in our own best interests, not necessarily those whom we occupy or offer assistance to. As far as our mission in Afghanistan is concerned, it is now fait accompli– has been so ever since we got OBL two years ago. The fact is, the Taliban does not pose existential threat to American national security. Nor did the NVA or the Khmer Rouge whom we thought were going to catalysts for the so-called “Domino Theory.” In fact, the dominoes never extended beyond Indochina after April, 1975.

    Most likely the Afghans will sort things out for themselves. They always have and I have no doubt that they will do so again.

  • Interesting observations Jeong. Although I do think it unlikely the Taliban will gain power in Afghanistan I do not even like the possibility of our taking sides and making nice with that type of sexist and extremist regime in an effort to curtail “terrorist” activities in that country. Their history with governance is poor, their ability to be rational with regards to treatment of or training of women, or even tolerance of those who do support more open society means to me that we could essentially be getting into bed with our enemies should we even allow relations to exist between a Taliban regime and that of any civilized society. It is difficult to know the feelings of the people, when the women have no voting rights, and even if it were officially sanctioned for women to vote, the majority of them would be too scared to come to the polls for fear of retribution from family or authorities in power.

    At the same time, I also feel that if we support the more liberal elements of that society and help to train those upcoming leaders in compassionate communication and peace building, perhaps, just perhaps, they will retain power and support for the elimination of prejudice and hatred will take root with the positive incentive that follow a positive change in a country that has had protracted conflict. It would seem, that providing support to the current governing forces through education and self sufficiency programs will do more to convince those tribal leaders to shun that extremist and show strength in numbers as supporters of a government willing to take responsibility for bringing their country into the 21st century, something that has proven time and again to bring some form of peace to areas formerly backward and poverty ridden. Stability of government, building of infrastructure, education in the skills necessary to attract employers all lead to peace in the future. We do not have to have a serious troop presence to help them accomplish those particular goals, even in a society that is limited in diversity.

    An appropriate exit strategy that leave both the current government and the people feeling good about America’s actions will go a long way to peace and prosperity for that nation. So far I have heard of no reasonable exit plan that was coauthored by the local people who will have to have a stake in the implementation of such a plan and an interest in sustainability. Our actions have not demonstrated overall a concern for the citizens, so much as a distain for extremist and a fear of their power. We need to show that we actually care about everyone left behind and that we are brave enough to provide them with the means to be self-directed in continuing the learning and growing process necessary to build their nation.

    The cost of ongoing operations there could be redirected to helping them build a society that demonstrates capacity. Actually if even half of what has been spent this past year on munitions and military presence activities were redirected to peace building, the effects would be much greater than our fearful antagonistic approach has been in the past several years.

    We have to ask ourselves, how would we feel if Canada, though friendly, were to come south and take over our homeland by force to drive out our radical extremist, and tell us they will not leave until they feel we are safe from our own people? How would we feel if the Canadian Prime Minister were to have as allies the United Kingdom who also had a presence in our country, and still create tensions with our president at the same time? If the radical elements in our country were to fight the Canadians, would we not favor them when we don’t see the Canadians treating us like they care? Would they not be encouraging us to follow the most radical elements in our society. We have to learn empathy with the events that are taking place to react appropriately

    We as a people always seem to assume that when we occupy a country that we are conquering heroes, even if it cost thousands of local people their lives, their livelihoods, and their freedom. Passing out a bit of candy or rebuilding supply routes is not likely to be seen as proper compensation for losses that we can not fathom happening to us. We need to give back what the Taliban attempted to crush, their freedom of choice, dignity and respect for their customs, and finally bring out the best in them through demonstrated examples of caring.

    Just some food for thought. Thank you for letting me present a different perspective.


  • [...] Note: This article was originally published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and is cross-posted with expressed permission from the said journal. Read the original post here. [...]