Defense One: Conditions on the Ground, Not Deadlines, Should Dictate Afghan Withdrawal

May 28, 2014

When President Barack Obama spoke about Afghanistan at the White House at West Point this week, four words were noticeably absent: “conditions on the ground.”

The president announced plans to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2015, provided the next Afghan president signs the bilateral security deal, then to halve that number in 2016. By 2017, the only troops remaining will be part of a “normal embassy presence.” The decision has the blessing of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, but critics say the decision should be based on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, not Washington.

In a 2009 speech at West Point announcing a “surge” of troops into Afghanistan, Obama noted that “just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” Six months later in a joint statement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he said that they “recognized that developing the Afghan National Security Forces’ capabilities is necessary to facilitate implementation of an orderly, conditions-based security transition process.”

In November 2010, NATO formalized an agreement with Afghanistan for a phased-in transition process to Afghan leadership that was to be ‘conditions-based,’ depending on how security and governance leadership on the ground took shape.

By October 2012, it was clear that conditions were no longer calling the shots. In the 2012 presidential campaign’s only vice-presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden told his opponent, Rep. Paul Ryan: “My friend and the governor [former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney] say it’s based on conditions, which means ‘it depends,'” Biden said of Obama’s promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. “It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security.”

Now Biden’s side has won the day, and some express worry about the shift.

“I was encouraged to see roughly 10,000 US troops remaining, and this will encourage other coalition members to add the needed 5,000 or so additional trainers,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013. “I hope that further reductions will be condition-based and not conducted on a pre-determined timeline, as there is still important work to be done supporting the more than 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces, who today are defeating the Taliban insurgency.”

Others who served in Afghanistan say they took a lot of comfort from the fact that the number was as high as 9,800 when some reports had the White House leaning toward about half that figure, or even considering a zero option. But they say it appears that it doesn’t matter what the Taliban does, or how the Afghan electorate develops, or whether America’s goals of eradicating al-Qaeda and dismantling terror networks and safe havens have been achieved. The conditions on the ground that matter most now are found in Washington, D.C.

“Events on the ground on our policy are like a parking brake on a car going downhill, it slows it down a little, but it doesn’t change much,” said Ron Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “This is a very Washington driven decision about getting out expressed in very politically tuned language.”

In television interviews Wednesday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry said the deadlines were critical to making the Afghans take responsibility for their own country.

“The fact is that if you tell the Afghans we’re going to be here just as long as it takes, take your time, believe me, they’ll take all the time in the world,” Kerry said. “And what we’re trying to do is make it clear we’re not going to give you all the time in the world, you have to push the envelope, you have to assume responsibility, and setting a date, a target, is the best way to do that.”

Neumann and others question that premise.

“The timeline is completely disconnected from achieving goals. It is like, ‘Well, these really aren’t our goals anymore, these are to give the Afghans a chance and then we are out of here, and if they don’t take the chance, too bad,’” Neumann said. “That is kind of a weird premise on which to send people to fight.”

For those like Neumann, and Republican internationalists such as Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte — gains made by Afghans risk being squandered if dates, rather than developments, determine what comes next for the coming phase of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

The three senators sent out a joint statement after Obama’s announcement. “The achievement of this goal, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground, not by the President’s concern for his legacy,” it said. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the same. “It has been my long-standing position that input from our commanders about the conditions on the ground should dictate troop decisions, and not an arbitrary number from Washington,” Boehner said.

Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy said she would like to see real-time events factored into decisions on the coming drawdown. “I would hope that, as we execute the plan, we’re informed by how conditions on the ground actually evolve,” Michele Flournoy said on PBS’ Newshour “I do think that we need to make sure that whatever drawdown timeline we have, we keep checking that against conditions on the ground and, if necessary, make adjustments.”