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US extend troop deployment in Afghanistan – a little bit

March 25, 2015

Summary:  US to extend the 10,000-soldier post-ISAF deployment to the end of 2015.

obama and ghaniThe US government has announced a long-anticipated decision to extend the deployment timeframe of the 9,800 US troops still in Afghanistan (USA Today, Washington Post, Tolo).   Instead of downsizing by half this year, they will stay in entirety to the end of 2015.   Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lobbied the US to achieve this (“deadlines should not be dogmas”).  The fate of the residual presence (we can I think call it that – at the peak of ISAF there were something like 110,000 troops, predominantly American, inside Afghanistan) into 2016 is unclear but President Obama seems clear that he will withdraw American forces by the end of 2016 and his presidency.

I am not clear what the impact this slight deadline extension of only a few thousand troops will be.  It is another gesture of support to the Afghan regime – a mending of the fences that were broken during the last period of President Hamid Karzai’s tenure.  It seems sensible to have a shallow “glidepath” to the process, given so much uncertainty over the security situation inside Afghanistan.  There is a high likelihood of a (soon-to-be-announced) Taliban “Spring Offensive” and concerns over the number of Afghan National Security Force casualties.

On 17 March, the analyst Max Boot tweeted

But this was also where the international community was in 2009, when Obama announced that the 2010 surge would be followed by the 2011 withdrawal.  Admittedly talks came to nothing, but we did at least see several attempts to talk with the Taliban, including establishing a Taliban office in Qatar.

US Army, Afghanistan 2015: Training mission, not combat mission

US Army, Afghanistan 2015: Training mission, not combat mission

But does a small US military presence make things better or worse?  I guess there are at least two schools of thought about the US presence now.  The US boots on the ground act as inflammable materiel to the Taliban’s cause – the Jihad continues as long as one American remains.  That is certainly their official line.  Alternately, a small continuing US presence does not pose so much risk or cost to the US government and is more or less sustainable indefinitely, depending on the wishes of the Afghan president of the day.  In the meantime, the Taliban will simply be killing Muslims.  This also presents the Taliban with a harsh reality of a further 10+ years of Jihad in front of them.  Might this actually guide the Taliban towards a realisation that a stalemate is inevitable and talks are the only way ahead?

A key consideration should be the issue of “humiliation”.  In order for talks to become more plausible, no party should be pushed into a position where they are demonstrated to have “lost”.  In this respect, it could be very constructive to have a point in time where US boots are no longer present on Afghan soil in order for the Taliban to be satisfied that they have achieved what they set out to do.  Never mind the rights and wrongs of this, as long as it presents a breathing space for Afghans to talk to each other.

Perhaps, by the time we get to mid-2016, we could see a clear signal from the US and Afghan presidents jointly to the effect that: the US forces are now leaving but the Afghan government reserves the right to call again for military assistance in the future if the security situation requires it.  In the meantime, international development expertise – economics, finance, reconstruction, etc – is welcome.  The Taliban are welcome to take part in this.

A breathing space for all?

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