As President Hamid Karzai visits with President Obama this Monday in Washington to discuss the details of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, most likely, the two leaders will not talk about whether the U.S. should remain present in Afghanistan after 2014, or completely withdraw, as most Americans hope to be case. To be clear, the discussion of a complete withdrawal of American forces before or after 2014 will not be on the agenda of Monday's talks.
Instead, the discussion between the two leaders would revolve around how many troops are needed to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, to carry out the mission objectives, which are, to train the Afghan security forces, to prevent the Taliban from gaining momentum and to prevent al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from carrying out attacks against American interests.
White House officials are already thinking about maintaining a force of 3,000 to 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, after the major troop withdrawal begins in 2014 -- a number much lower than what Gen. John Allen has requested, which is a force of 6,000 to 20,000 troops.
With the Taliban's commitment to continue their fight and the deteriorating security situation, Gen. Allen's request seems to be more realistic. In a statement released on Saturday, the Taliban vowed to continue fighting against American troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, demonstrating the need for larger number of U.S. troops to support the fragile Afghan security forces defend their nation and to prevent al-Qaeda gain grounds in the country.
Leaving a force of 3,000 to 9,000 troops will not be sufficient to carry out all the objectives the U.S. and Afghan governments have in mind. So why is the Obama administration considering such a low number? Perhaps one reason is that the majority of the American people want to see the longest and costly American war ended as soon as possible, pressuring members of Congress to follow their suit. In a recent bipartisan vote of 62-33, the U.S. Senate called for a speedy transition of security to Afghan forces before the 2014 deadline, suggesting how unpopular the Afghanistan war has become among members of Congress. Furthermore, President Obama throughout his second presidential campaign promised that he would end the war in Afghanistan, although he never made it clear whether he supported a full withdrawal.
Under such circumstances, the U.S. wants to test things out by leaving fewer soldiers. The fewer soldiers the U.S. leaves behind, the easier it will be to get them out, in case the unexpected happens. If Afghanistan descends into a civil war, like it did in 1990s, the U.S. would not want to deal with such crisis and would seek a fast way out of the country. With fewer soldiers on the ground, the government would have more flexibility. Moreover, the American people would not support the government to commit U.S. solders into an Afghan civil war. Perhaps many people remember the Soviet Union's bitter experience in the late 1980s, which in the words of Mikhail Gorbachev had become "the bleeding wound," as he decided to end the war.
Though, the U.S. government has not reached to the point where it views the Afghan war a lost battle, like Mr. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union did in March of 1985. For that reason, as long as the situation remains under control of the Afghan government and the current progress continues, albeit slowly, the Obama administration would not want to consider a complete withdrawal. The key turning point would be the upcoming Afghan presidential election, which is set to take place in April, 2014. If the election goes well and the prospect of a civil war diminishes, the U.S. troops and the administration would get credit for helping the Afghan people.
As far as the rapid withdrawal before the 2014 deadline is concerned, the administration would perhaps consider it as an option. But such decision would not be without risks, as a rapid withdrawal before 2014 could encourage the Taliban to re-mobilize and accelerate their fight against the fragile Afghan security forces. With fewer U.S. and NATO troops on the ground, the Taliban could perhaps gain momentum, bringing the Obama administration under attacks by those who oppose a sudden and rapid withdrawal, before the 2014 deadline.
In short, in tomorrow's meetings, the two leaders should calculate their final decisions based on the future risks posed by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are trying to undermine U.S. interests by overthrowing the Afghan government.
In the end, let's not forget that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were planned by al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan, with the Taliban's support. In the absence of U.S. and NATO forces, Afghanistan can once again become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, endangering American security.