President Obama’s Announcement on Troop Levels in Afghanistan: No Plan, No Transparency, No Credibility, and No Leadership

President Obama announced troop levels for Afghanistan on May 27th in ways that make no effort to present a real plan or strategy. He simply set dates certain for the elimination of a meaningful U.S. military presence in 2015 – ignoring the fact that leaving half of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan in 2016 is too small in enabling capability to meet Afghan needs. He said:

Today, I want to be clear about how the United States is prepared to advance those missions.  At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 98,000 U.S. -- let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don’t get this written wrong.  At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield.  One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.

He also ignored the fact that by setting dates certain without a hint of conditionality, he effectively told the Taliban, other insurgents, and the region that the United States will not reinforce Afghan forces in an emergency. Like his earlier deadline of 2014 for ending a U.S. combat presence, he has given the enemy a clear promise that all they have to do is wait, hitting Afghan forces where it is easy, and seeing all U.S. (and allied) forces gone by 2016.

He did not provide any strategic explanation of his decision, or meaningful assessment of the risks. He did not explain how the remaining U.S. forces will be organized, based, what they will do, or what they will cost. He did not assess any of the risks in his decisions or the relative value of staying in Afghanistan in the way his decisions call for. All he did was provide a set of empty generalities:

Our objectives are clear:  Disrupting threats posed by al Qaeda; supporting Afghan security forces; and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own.

Here’s how we will pursue those objectives.  First, America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country.  American personnel will be in an advisory role.  We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys.  That is a task for the Afghan people.

Second, I’ve made it clear that we’re open to cooperating with Afghans on two narrow missions after 2014:  training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda. 

These statements ignore the fact that ISAF figures do not show any of the gains from the surge in Afghanistan that occurred from the surge in Iraq, and UN casualty data show that the situation sharply deteriorated in 2013. They talk about narrow missions, but it is unclear how a counterterrorism mission will take place if the United States cannot use drones to attack targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now that President Karzai has effectively crippled Afghan Special Forces.

 They do not address the fact that Afghan forces have been rushed forward and have not met most of the goals necessary to fully take over the fight, and the Afghan Air Force was never supposed to be ready before 2016. He made no mention of the Italian and German forces that have been a key part of NATO/ISAF deployment plans, or that senior U.S. commanders have been forced to keep cutting the recommended total troop presence down from a level of 13,500 – which was then seen as an absolute minimum to provide assistance at the Afghan Corps level with virtually no ability to help or enable in any emergency.

Once again, his timing effectively leaves a meaningful advisory presence for only one year at a time when both Department of Defense and SIGAR are reporting major issues about the quality of even the army portion of a total force that is more than 40% notoriously corrupt police. He does not mention any clear plan to fund the Afghan force although the Afghan government has fallen far short of its revenue goals, has not made the planned progress in managing and executing its budget, and is totally dependent on outside military funding.

   There may be a strategic case for a rapid departure and one involving a high risk that Transition will fail. Afghanistan is not a key center of terrorism and a U.S. presence has little broad strategic value, the United States has other far more strategic and domestic priorities, and the world has already largely written off the U.S. and NATO role in Afghanistan as a waste of effort and de facto defeat.

That is not, however, the case the President made.  In fact, the White House issued a supposed fact sheet that failed to address the real world problems in the Afghan forces, the weaknesses in an Afghan government that the World Bank ranks as one of the weakest in the world, and Transparency International ranks as one of the most corrupt.

It repeated claims about economic progress some of which are absurd. For example, it stated that, “Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has grown an average of 9.4 percent per year from 2003 to 2012.” All of the claims made in the Fact Sheet are highly controversial and involve a massive level of uncertainty that the United States chooses to ignore, but this claim takes credit for gains in GDP that were the result of highly favorable rainfall in 2012, which are based on extremely uncertain methods of calculating GDP, and totally ignores a major drop in GDP growth because of less favorable rains in 2013.

It does not address Afghanistan’s lack of progress in economic reform and reaching effective and honest governance. It does not address any plan for economic aid to a country that the UN estimates has one of the worst Human Development rankings in the World and the World Bank warns could see a critical recession or worse in the more modern market sectors because of massive coming cuts in aid and military spending. It made no announcement of either progress in economic aid and Afghanistan’s ability to meet the goals set in the Tokyo Conference or what will happen to the $77 billion the Department of Defense has used as a placeholder figure for the FY2015 budget year or the $30 billion a year it projected for FY2016 to FY2019.

Instead, there is another set of vague generalities that any careful reading shows means far less than it may at first seem to imply:

The United States’ support is part of an international effort to assist Afghanistan as it enters the “Transformation Decade” of 2015-2024.  At the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, Afghanistan and NATO reaffirmed its commitment to further develop an enduring partnership that would last beyond the transition of full security responsibility for Afghanistan from ISAF to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.  This commitment is a clear message to the Afghan people that they will not stand alone as they take responsibility for their security.  At the 2012 Tokyo Conference, Afghanistan and the international community also committed to support the sustainable growth and development of Afghanistan.  The international community pledged financial support, through 2017, at or near levels of the past decade, to respond to Afghanistan’s projected budget shortfalls.

…However, challenges remain, and Afghanistan will require continued international assistance to sustain its gains and further meet its development goals.  In January 2013, the President reaffirmed the conclusions of the Tokyo Conference, including that the U.S. commitment to align 80 percent of our aid with Afghan priorities and channel at least 50 percent of development assistance through the national budget of the Afghan government as part of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework.

Like so many of the President’s speeches, rhetoric, concepts, and spin substitute for meaningful transparency, credible plans, and leadership that calls for tangible action. Moreover, this spin effort is describing a level of progress and risk in Afghanistan that simply does not exist. UN, World Bank, NGO, SIGAR, and Department of Defense data all make this brutally clear.

These data – updated through May 2014 -- are laid in detail in a report entitled The Post-Election Challenges to Afghan Transition: 2014-2015, which is available on the CSIS web site here

The risks in rushing to cut US advisory and enabling support to the ANSF, and repeating the mistakes made in Vietnam and Iraq, are described in more detail in Shaping the Uncertain Future of the ANSF, which is available on the CSIS web site here.

The critical problems in Afghan governance and economic development are described in more detail in The Afghan Civil Transition Crisis: Afghanistan's Status and the Warnings from Iraq's Failure which is available on the CSIS web site here.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy