Foreign and Defense Policy, AfPak

Zero troops in Afghanistan = zero drone strikes in Pakistan

Image Credit: DrSmith 7383 (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image Credit: DrSmith 7383 (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

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.

4 thoughts on “Zero troops in Afghanistan = zero drone strikes in Pakistan

  1. The war has been too costly in money and manpower and the drone strikes seem to have created many enemies around the world as the pictures of innocent women and children being killed have turned people who are sympathetic to the US against it. Why not let the Afghans and Pakistanis to their own affairs? Carry on with commercial affairs but stay away from their politics just as the Chinese are doing.

  2. Vangel:

    We left the “Afghans and Pakistanis to their own affairs” after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The result: a nuclear Pakistan supporting terrorism; and a war-torn Afghanistan occupied by al Qaeda and Taliban. Why have we forgotten 9/11 so soon? Should we repeat the mistake?

    • Vangel:

      We left the “Afghans and Pakistanis to their own affairs” after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The result: a nuclear Pakistan supporting terrorism; and a war-torn Afghanistan occupied by al Qaeda and Taliban. Why have we forgotten 9/11 so soon? Should we repeat the mistake?

      You have made the same mistake. 9/11 was an act by the people that you trained to fight the Soviets in the first place. They were pissed off at you not because you wore jeans and were ‘free’ but because you supported dictators in Muslim lands and even stationed your troops there. The fact is that you are still refusing to learn what the real lesson is.

      My first lesson on suicide bombers had nothing to do with some Marxist professor talking against the United States. It was Allan Bloom, who was explaining his interpretative essay at the back of his translation of The Republic. I was fascinated because some of the people I used to live with in the shadow of the Iron Curtain used to have similar insights.

      Bloom was talking about thymos, which was something that the young were usually ‘afflicted’ with and made them do some very stupid things. (Stupid as far as mature and thoughtful individuals were concerned.) Bloom defined it at the time as spiritedness, a natural resentment towards injustice.

      In the discussion some of us brought up religious extremists and their sducidal acts but Bloom pointed out that if one were to look at suicide bombers and similar attacks we would find that the overwhelming number came from a Marxist group that had no religious sentiment to rile up its members. They killed themselves and their victims because they were pissed off at an occupying force that was mistreating their communities, families, and country. End of story. Suicide for them was a defensive act to repel occupiers, not to invade another country.

      I think that Bloom, who taught many of the neocons, that now drive the debate, was on the money but that his students and colleagues have ‘conveniently’ forgotten his teaching. And it seems they are still quite good at pushing your buttons and getting you to do the other things that Bloom advocated when discussing Plato’s book. Those shadows on the wall are not what you think they are my friend, and those casting them are not exactly who or what you think they are.

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