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US Troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016

October 16, 2015

Summary: Barack Obama grudgingly but rightly decides to retain a small military presence in Afghanistan for a small amount of time.  The airpower component will ensure the presence is not purely symbolic. 

Staying for a little bit longer

Staying for a little bit longer

Many news outlets are reporting the long-anticipated decision by US President Barack Obama to retain a US military presence inside Afghanistan:

BBC News, 15 October 2015: President Barack Obama has confirmed plans to extend the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, in a shift in policy.  Speaking at the White House, he said the US would keep 5,500 troops in the country when he leaves office in 2017.  Originally all but a small embassy-based force were due to leave by the end of next year.  But the US military says more troops will be needed to help Afghan forces counter a growing Taliban threat.  There are currently 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan.  The US forces will be stationed in four locations – Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.”

Although Mr Obama looks to have had his heart set on ending the American wars he promised to end when he became president, the decision is not entirely a surprise. One of Afghan President Ghani’s first missions on becoming president was to travel to Washington to ask for precisely such an extension, on grounds that the security situation was still very unstable. Since Ghani’s request, fighting between Afghan government and insurgency forces (primarily the Taliban) has only increased. The Taliban seem to have been able to shrug off the July shock revelation that their leader, Mullah Omar, had in fact succumbed to illness in 2013. They have sustained offensive operations through the spring, summer and now autumn. In a worrying demonstration of the distance the Afghan army’s independent capability still has to travel, Kunduz was briefly captured in September. It was only recaptured with the help of active US military intervention.

But what does this small extension of relatively small numbers of forces actually allow the US to do? At the peak of the multi-national International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployment, in 2011, some 140,000 soldiers, primarily American, had their boots on the ground. I wrote about the complex, convoluted and unsatisfactory Obama decision-making process for the 2011 “surge” of 30,000 extra troops here. Doubtless, a smaller scale version of this debate was had in the White House and the Pentagon in the last few months.

We should probably expect the 5,000 troops to be allocated against some of these core functions:

  • Securing the US Embassy in Kabul (1,000 troops?)
  • Base protection of US-controlled installations in Afghanistan: Kabul, Bagram (a large former-Soviet airbase 50km north of Kabul), Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and Kandahar to the south.
  • Training, liaison and advisor programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)
  • Special Forces capacity to target Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS targets of opportunity in the region
  • Airpower – to support these four missions and to be able to support the ANSF in extremis

It is not a lot of fighting force but will likely allow the ANSF to hold the line. We should expect some other European troops to remain committed as well, particularly the UK, perhaps picking up additional training and Special Forces duties. The airpower component will be crucial and certainly takes it a little bit further than pure symbolism.  But the symbolism is also at play, operating in two ways. It demonstrates that the US will remain committed but it makes it that little bit harder for the Taliban – who have not had a bad year, given the loss of their leader – to sit down for talks. Their consistent assertion has been that there should be no official (note I am saying “official” here) talks until the infidels have left.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. sues57 permalink
    October 16, 2015 5:37 pm

    What about a re-evaluation of current ANSF training procedures? It’s been suggested that greater rotation, between those in the field and trainees, might produce better results.

  2. October 19, 2015 6:18 pm

    Hi Suzanne…. You may well be right on that count, but I think they will still be looking at a massive mountain of other problems as well. I wonder if greater rotation might be stymied in the first place by attrition rates – harder to rotate people in and out of the field if there are insufficient troops in the field in the first place.?

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