Afghanistan: Zero Troops Should Not Be an Option

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Afghanistan: Zero Troops Should Not Be an Option

July 10, 2013 4 min read
Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Lisa focused on U.S. national security interests and regional geopolitics as senior research fellow on South Asia.

The Obama Administration is considering leaving no U.S. troops behind in Afghanistan after it ends its combat mission there in 2014. This would undermine U.S. security interests, as it would pave the way for the Taliban to regain influence in Afghanistan and cripple the U.S. ability to conduct counterterrorism missions in the region.

President Obama instead should commit the U.S. to maintaining a robust troop presence (at least 15,000–20,000) in Afghanistan after 2014 in order to train and advise the Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorism missions as necessary. The U.S. should also remain diplomatically, politically, and financially engaged in Afghanistan in order to sustain the gains made over the past decade and ensure that the country does not again serve as a sanctuary for international terrorists intent on attacking the U.S.

Flaring Tensions Fuel Poor Policy Decisions

Tensions between the Obama and Karzai administrations have escalated in recent months. The U.S. Administration blundered in its handling of the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha in mid-June. In sending a U.S. delegation to Doha to meet with the Taliban leadership without the presence of the Afghan government, the Taliban appeared to be achieving its long-sought objective of cutting the Karzai administration out of the talks.

The Taliban also scored a public relations coup by raising the flag associated with its five-year oppressive rule in front of the office. The episode angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the point that he pulled out of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) talks with the U.S., thus fulfilling another Taliban goal of driving a wedge between the U.S. and Afghan governments.

Karzai’s opposition to the U.S. talking unilaterally with the Taliban is understandable, but his decision to pull out of the BSA talks is misguided, since maintaining an international troop presence post-2014 is essential to the stability of the Afghan state and the ability of Afghan forces to protect against the use of its territory for international terrorism. The BSA talks are necessary to forge an agreement on a post-2014 U.S. troop presence.

If the White House is publicizing its consideration of the zero-troop option to try to pressure the Karzai administration, it also is misguided in its negotiating tactics. The Afghans already believe the U.S. is likely to cut and run, similar to the way Washington turned its back on the Afghans over two decades ago when the Soviets conceded defeat and pulled out of the country.

The Obama Administration’s failure to reach agreement with the Iraqi government on the terms for a residual U.S. force presence there highlights the White House’s poor track record in managing these kinds of negotiations.

Taliban Talks a Masquerade

The Taliban leadership has shown no sign that it is ready to compromise for peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban has refused to talk directly with the Karzai government, calling it a puppet of the U.S., and has shown little interest in participating in a normal political process. The Taliban appears to believe that it is winning the war in Afghanistan and simply needs to wait out U.S. and NATO forces. The insurgent leaders’ only motivation for engaging with U.S. officials appears to be to obtain prisoner releases and to encourage the U.S. to speed up its troop withdrawals. The Taliban has already scored tactical points through the dialogue process by playing the U.S. and Afghans off one another and establishing international legitimacy with other governments.

Moreover, the Taliban has not tamped down violence in order to prepare an environment conducive to talks. In fact, in recent weeks Taliban insurgents have stepped up attacks. In early June, for instance, insurgents conducted a suicide attack near the international airport in Kabul, and two weeks later they attacked the Afghan presidential palace.

Perseverance Required to Achieve U.S. Objectives

As difficult as the job may be, it is essential that the U.S. remain engaged in Afghanistan. It would be shortsighted to ignore the likely perilous consequences of the U.S. turning its back on this pivotal country from where the 9/11 attacks originated. Moving forward, the U.S. should:

  • Lay its cards down on the number of troops it plans to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. The White House should commit to keeping a fairly robust number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan over the next several years. Former U.S. Central Command chief General James Mattis made clear in recent remarks to Congress that he hoped the U.S. would leave behind around 13,500 troops and that other NATO nations would leave an additional 6,500 troops.[1] This would bring a total of around 20,000 international forces stationed in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to help with training and advising the Afghan forces.
  • Encourage continued strengthening of the democratic process in the country rather than rely on the false hope of political reconciliation with the Taliban. The Taliban believe they will win the war in Afghanistan without compromising politically and through violent intimidation of the Afghan population, especially when U.S. and coalition troops are departing. Taliban leaders appear unmotivated to compromise for peace and indeed are stepping up attacks on the Afghan security forces and civilians. The White House should focus on promoting democratic processes and institutions that will directly counter extremist ideologies and practices. Integral to this strategy is supporting a free and fair electoral process next spring both through technical assistance and regular and consistent messaging on the importance of holding the elections on time.
  • Further condition U.S. military aid to Pakistan on its willingness to crack down on Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries on its territory. There continues to be close ties between the Pakistani military and the Taliban leadership and its ally, the Haqqani network, which is responsible for some of the fiercest attacks against coalition and Afghan forces. In early June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved language in the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that conditions reimbursement of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) pending Pakistani actions against the Haqqani network. Hopefully, the language will be retained in the final bill. The U.S. provides CSF funds to reimburse Pakistan for the costs associated with stationing some 100,000 Pakistani troops along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has received over $10 billion in CSF funding over the past decade.

Avoid Repeating History

The U.S. should not repeat the same mistake it made 20 years ago by disengaging abruptly from Afghanistan, especially when so much blood and treasure has been expended in the country over the past decade. There is a genuine risk of the Taliban reestablishing its power base and facilitating the revival of al-Qaeda in the region if the U.S. gives up the mission in Afghanistan.

While frustration with Karzai is high, U.S. officials should not allow a troop drawdown to turn into a rush for the exits that would lead to greater instability in Afghanistan and thus leave the U.S. more vulnerable to the global terrorist threat.

—Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]Gopal Ratnam, “Mattis Urges Keeping 20,000 NATO Troops in Afghanistan,” Bloomberg, March 5, 2013, (accessed July 10, 2013).


Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center