The New York Times reports that President Obama is “giving serious consideration” to pulling out all US troops from Afghanistan next year because of growing tension with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Suspicious of direct US-Taliban talks in Qatar, Kabul last month suspended planned negotiations with Washington over a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that lays out a legal framework for a residual American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Let’s hope that this is a pressure tactic used by the administration to increase its leverage with Kabul in the negotiation process. But given President Obama’s rush to exit from Afghanistan and his track record in Iraq, it appears to be déjà vu all over again.
A premature US pullout from Iraq proved disastrous: the country is sliding back into chaos; al Qaeda has made a comeback; and Iran has emerged as the most influential player in post-Saddam Iraq. But the consequences of an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to be much worse. A complete pullout next year would put at risk all security gains the US and its allies have made against al Qaeda and its affiliates in South Asia in the past 11 years. Afghanistan could revert to a pre-9/11 situation.
As I wrote on CNN GPS earlier this year, the US needs a significant military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to achieve four principal objectives: 1) to send a strong message to friends and enemies in the region that the US is not abandoning Afghanistan; 2) to continue to assist and advise Afghan security forces until they are self-sufficient; 3) to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations in remote Afghan provinces to further weaken al Qaeda and associated forces and prevent them from reconstituting in parts of the country; and 4) to keep a check on the growing terrorism threat emanating from Pakistan. The success of drone strikes against al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan largely depends on military and intelligence assets in Afghanistan. A complete withdrawal means the US will no longer be able to conduct counterterrorism in South Asia effectively.