Project Description

Copyright: Defense in Depth, Council on Foreign Relations. With Janine Davidson.

Afghanistan’s April 5 elections were well attended, successful, and – most importantly – relatively safe. According to preliminary reports, the Taliban did not launch a single major attack from the time polls opened to the time they closed. The most striking concern was not a failure in security (there were 140 attacks this year, compared to 500 in 2009), but rather a shortage of ballots. While often indicative of vote tampering, this also revealed the zeal with which Afghans went to the polls.

Although many weeks of vote tallying, debate, and a likely runoff lie ahead, by all accounts, this weekend represented the turn of a major page in Afghanistan. However, for a growing number of U.S. policymakers and an increasingly skeptical American public, this success comes as too little, too late. As the debate over the United States’ post-2014 involvement in Afghanistan intensifies, the “zero option” of total force withdrawal is set to gain more political momentum.

Those U.S. commanders making the case for a reasonable residual presence of at least 10,000 advisers through 2014 and beyond face steep resistance. The war in Afghanistan is now arguably the most unpopular conflict in American history. A December CNN poll found that support for the war has dipped below 20 percent. After 2,316 American, 1,116 Coalition, and roughly  18,000 Afghan civilian fatalities; cumulative spending of more than $600 billion dollars; an often obstinate Karzai government; and nearly thirteen years of continuous fighting, there is ample argument for the United States to simply cut its losses and leave.

But such an abrupt exit, while appealing, would also be the surest way to void the gains won by over a decade of aid and development efforts. These gains, enabled by the military campaign against the Taliban, are real. Today’s Afghan schools enroll nearly 800 percent more children than they did in 2001 – including 2.3 million young girls. Infant mortality has been halved. Afghans enjoy a range of political and social freedoms unimaginable under the Taliban, not least of which is democratic franchise. It was projected that 60 to 70 percent of eligible Afghan voters would turn out for April 5′s election – compared to just 57 percent of Americans in November 2012.

The war in Afghanistan has not yet been won – but it is at a critical inflection point. The next several months are critical: for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy, for Afghan humanitarian and development aid, and most especially for the Afghan National Army, whose 382,000 soldiers do not lack for courage so much as critical institutional and logistical functions. While Afghans now execute 95 percent of ground combat missions against the Taliban, they are able to do so only with access to vital U.S. support.

A slow transition of combat authority and assets between U.S. and Afghan forces will ensure that the Afghans retain a vital continuity of capability against a renewed Taliban offensive.  If this transition is too accelerated or – in the case of some proposed exit strategies – nonexistent, the systems so carefully engineered over the past thirteen years could simply collapse.

As General John Allen (ret.), commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013, recently observed, “This isn’t about cutting our losses, it’s about locking in the future of this country.”

Historically, success and speed are rarely intertwined in the case of force drawdowns and withdrawals. America’s most prominent nation building partnerships – in Japan, Germany, and the Republic of Korea – were followed by an in-country presence that has yet to leave. By contrast, America’s precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 was accompanied by immediate regime collapse. It is an open question whether America’s full, non-residual 2011 withdrawal from Iraq will follow a similar path.

In evaluating prospects for Afghanistan’s future in light of different strategies for withdrawal, it is helpful to look to a successful multilateral intervention of the last two decades: the UN and NATO-led intervention and subsequent stabilization of Bosnia and Herzogina at the height of the Bosnian War.

Multilateral peace enforcement in Bosnia from 1996 to 2004 was marked by a gradual and steady reduction in troop numbers. By contrast, NATO planners are now considering a total withdrawal from Afghanistan scarcely three years since 2011's peak surge of 137,000 combat troops. U.S. political will is a deciding factor in this debate.

Following a force level of roughly 60,000 troops from thirty-two countries in 1995, the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) was established in 1996 with the explicit goal of peace enforcement in the aftermath of war. Constituted at a size of roughly 30,000 and increasing to a peak of 35,000 in 1997 (of which 8,800 were U.S. troops) to provide security for Bosnian elections, the force was otherwise characterized by a gentle glideslope as it fulfilled its stability mandate. By 2002, SFOR numbered roughly 12,000; in 2004, it was formally dissolved. Even today, Bosnia remains home to a small contingent of NATO peacekeepers.

By comparison, following a small invasion of approximately 3,000 CIA and Special Operations Forces to topple the Taliban in 2001, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) boasted less than 20,000 troops in country by 2004 and barely 30,000 by 2006 as the Taliban began to re-emerge. Between 2009 and 2011, the ISAF presence surged by 110 percent, to a peak of 137,000 troops in country. ISAF’s presence has now been in the process of deflating almost as quickly as it grew. Even the U.S. military’s (optimistic) case for a residual force of 10,000 would have to be sustained well beyond 2017 to achieve a glideslope remotely similar to that of the Bosnian intervention.

There are obvious differences between Afghanistan and Bosnia: a considerably more fractious security environment, a landmass thirteen times larger, a concerted counterinsurgency campaign, and a strong and increasingly competent indigenous force.

Nonetheless, one lesson of Bosnia remains highly relevant: stability takes patience. It also takes political will. Given current U.S. domestic opinion trends, while this lesson may be understood, time will tell if it can be followed.