The United States is considering slowing its military exit from Afghanistan by keeping a larger-than-planned troop presence this year and next because the new Afghan government is proving to be a more reliable partner, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Saturday.
Carter, on his first overseas trip since starting the Pentagon job Tuesday, also said the Obama administration is “rethinking” the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, although he did not elaborate.
No decisions have been made, but President Barack Obama will discuss a range of options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits the White House next month, Carter said at a news conference with Ghani. The presidents also plan to talk about the future of the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan, he said.
Carter did not say Obama was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, only that the president was rethinking the pace of troop withdrawals for 2015 and 2016.
There are about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 as recently as 2010-11.
While bearing in mind the serious costs of keeping American troops in a place like Afghanistan, this news is encouraging, and could prefigure a bigger shift, toward a longer-lasting pledge of support for the Afghans. For one, there are few to the right of President Obama who don’t regret that way the U.S. abruptly abandoned the Iraqi government in 2011, given what’s happened in the country since. Moreover, while Afghanistan is generally worse-off than Iraq — it’s much poorer, much more backward, etc. — it has a government that’s a much more palatable partner than Iraq’s Shia-dominated regime. It’s not a very strong partner, but the president, Ashraf Ghani, is a decent leader whom the West was happy to see win last year. Another angle that’s a little better than Iraq: Afghans are experienced fighters, if they can be kept on the side of the government. The army and police are still somewhat weak and the country has deep divisions, but keeping it from dissolving into civil war (to say nothing of maintaining a foothold near al-Qaeda’s home base) should be feasible and worthwhile.
Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghan national who’s as an analyst at AEI, noted to me in the fall that the political deal between the president (Ghani) and national CEO Abdullah Abdullah came together in part because of American pressure and support. It’s held, so far, but it will fall apart quite quickly without financial and military backing for the Afghan government, he said. Similar things are going on with the Afghan security forces — they’re not collapsing, but they need help, and time. Slowing the pace of a 2016 withdrawal, unaccompanied by discussion of financing and supporting the Afghan government in other ways, is just a very small step in the right direction.