The New York Times reports today that the Obama administration is considering doing what it did in Iraq, and withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014:
On the eve of a visit by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it was open to a so-called zero option that would involve leaving no American troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO combat mission there comes to an end.
While President Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw American troops as rapidly as possible, the plans for a postwar American presence in Afghanistan have generally envisioned a residual force of thousands of troops to carry out counterterrorism operations and to help train and equip Afghan soldiers.
In a conference call with reporters, the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said that leaving no troops “would be an option that we would consider,” adding that “the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
Military analysts have said it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence.
Discussing the administration’s planning, Mr. Rhodes said the “core goal” of the United States was to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda.”
As Fred and Kimberly Kagan have eloquently pointed out, unless we retain roughly 68,000 troops in Afghanistan into 2014 (and about 30,000 thereafter) that “core goal” will be difficult to achieve.
With zero troops, it will go from difficult to impossible. Here is why: Complete withdrawal would end the U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan and make special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden almost impossible to carry out.
Such operations are dependent not just on bases in Afghanistan, but forward bases in dangerous territory near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As the Kagans explained:
North Waziristan is more than 600 miles from the nearest coastline; the other [U.S.] sanctuaries are farther. The U.S. Air Force reports that armed Predator drones have a range of about 1,150 miles — not enough to get to Waziristan and back again from the coast, much less to orbit and observe a target. Special mission units would have to parachute from transport aircraft because no helicopter in the U.S. inventory can fly that far. But they could not return because aircraft cannot land in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan or in Pakistan.
With our forward bases in Khost, Kandahar and Jalalabad (which is 150 miles from Abbotabad where bin Laden was killed), we can strike targets with drones and send SEAL Team Six to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders. But too deep a drawdown would make it hard to maintain these forward bases – requiring us to draw back from perilous border areas. And Bagram airbase near Kabul, or U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean, are too far away for anything other than operations by manned aircraft (which cannot loiter to observe their targets, pick the right moment to strike, or confirm a kill).
If we drawdown too deeply in Afghanistan, it would be very hard to continue the drone campaign or insert special operations forces into Pakistan.
If we go down to zero troops, Obama’s goal to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda” will be unachievable.
Going to zero forces in Afghanistan may be appealing to Americans tiring of our deployment there. A Washington Post poll last year found that 78% of Americans want a drawdown of U.S. forces there. But that same poll found that 83% of Americans support drone strikes against al Qaeda. Well, those Americans need to understand: The “zero option” means zero drone strikes.