Ashton Carter at Jalala Air Base in Afghanistan

Ashton Carter with Brig. Gen. Ron Lewis,
Jalalabad Air Base, Afghanistan, 2013;
Department of Defense Photo/Glenn Fawcett

U.S. May Slow Withdrawal From Afghanistan
| published February 22, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Ashton Carter, the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, says that the United States should strongly reconsider its current schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Carter will have discussions with President Barack Obama within the next weeks to discuss exactly such a change in policy, a shift which may result in American forces remaining in Afghanistan well past the administration’s original timetable of the extraction of 10,000 troops by December 2015 and a full withdrawal by mid-2016.

Why the shift in policy at the top?

For one, Pentagon planners and the White House are concerned that an Iraq-style meltdown could too easily occur once the last of American and coalition forces leave the country. Many military analysts have long said that Iraq’s current fragmentation is due in part to the hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2012, a departure which left the Iraqi Army unprepared for the onslaught of regional stresses and sectarian violence, especially the rise of the Islamic State, which now controls roughly one third of the country, including vast stretches of territory where U.S. forces fought and died between 2003 and 2011.

The second reason that Ash Carter will recommend to the White House a decelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan: a new accord in the strategic thinking between U.S. leaders and new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani and his contingent, who represent a more unified and collaborative view of Afghan domestic politics, will meet with Obama and top U.S. military leaders in March, at which time—many foreign policy experts suggest—the two countries may find plenty of reasons that their once-differing views of Afghan security have now come back into harmony. Previous Afghan President Hamid Karzai often disagreed with U.S. policy-makers and Pentagon leadership, not merely over the conduct of the war, but also over the very nature of the military partnership at the height of the war, which pitted U.S. and Afghan forces against the Taliban and elements of al Qaeda. Karzai was also sharply at odds with some of his own political foes at home, which, made cohesive policy toward U.S. involvement in Afghan security and self-determination difficult, to say the least.

Karzai was often dismissive of U.S. policy, and sometimes publicly complained about the timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Furthermore, over the last 18 months, Karzai had been largely unconcerned about a possible Iraq or Syria style fragmentation along sectarian and tribal lines within his country, where Taliban violence has been again on the rise, especially in those areas where U.S. and coalition forces no longer operate.

The new Afghan leadership is far more unified than that of Karzai, and one of the clear and present worries of that new government is not merely a resurgent Taliban, but the distinct possibility of an ISIS-like movement within its own boundaries. The Islamic State now no longer represents a localized disturbance; once limited to rebel pockets of northern Syria, ISIS has spread its umbrella of dominance across more than a third of all of Syria and Iraq, and now occupies or maintains de facto control of border checkpoints along the fringes of Jordan and Turkey. It has also established like-minded footholds in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan, and seems on the verge of establishing satellite Islamic caliphates across Africa and well into parts of Eastern Europe. Unlike its rival group al Qaeda, ISIS rejects operating in small pockets and cells, but prefers instead to forge large zones of political and social dominance, in essence forming a government—complete with taxes, fees, and law enforcement—wherever it maintains its footprint.

For the governing powers in Kabul, such an outcome would be catastrophic. For the United States—which invested billions of dollars and sent thousands of Americans to fight and die—such a result would be unacceptable, and would surely cause political blowback for both Republicans and Democrats.

In recent remarks to journalists in Washington, Carter said that troop withdrawals from Afghanistan should “reflect reality on the ground.” With most top Afghan leaders in complete agreement on this point, it is likely that President Obama will rethink the current long-term plan to have the last American boots out of Afghanistan no later than mid-2016.

The swift rise of ISIS has posed the possibility that a quasi-unified state based on radical Islamist law and social guidance could spring up in scores of Muslim countries, especially in the void left in areas where al Qaeda operations have weakened. ISIS also succeeds in places of lawlessness and weak central governance, such as war-torn Syria—now in its fourth year of civil war and political fragmentation—and in Libya, which has remained largely ungoverned and fragmented after the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi. Many intelligence experts say that ISIS will soon develop similar footholds in places as diverse as Somalia, the Sudan, Mali, and possibly Lebanon. ISIS also poses a threat to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which are part of the coalition of moderate states now battling ISIS through the U.S.-led air campaign.

Carter has met with generals and commanders in the field, as well as Gen. Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, to discuss the drawdown in Afghanistan. Carter will also meet with intelligence experts who have been watching the steady progress of ISIS in Afghanistan, where it may be actively seeking to co-opt many of the remaining elements of al Qaeda operations, and where some Taliban operations remain both active and violent.

Speaking in Kandahar province in Afghanistan on Sunday, Carter told soldiers and reporters that complete and comprehensive training of Afghan army and security forces should be central to the mission of the Americans as they begin a slow withdrawal. Carter has indicated to colleagues that any rush to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces could result in an Afghan military underprepared for the challenges of confronting remaining elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda, or the rise of an ISIS-like state within the state.

The White House has indicated that a decision of a slowdown of the scheduled withdrawal could come in late March when the President has meetings scheduled with Ghani and other top Afghan officials.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Italy Feels Pressure From ISIS; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 18, 2015.

Egypt Strikes ISIS Targets in Libya; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 16, 2015.