Afghans throw stones toward a U.S. airbase during a protest against the… (S. Sabawoon / EPA )
What is the logic behind the Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan? On its face, it makes no sense.
In 2009, President Obama ordered a major buildup of forces to counter alarming gains by the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan increased from 34,000 when he took office to nearly 100,000 in 2010. To oversee the buildup he sent two top Army generals, Stanley A. McChrystal and then David H. Petraeus, to design and implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan that the president signed off on.
In June of last year, however, Obama announced that 32,000 "surge" troops would come home by September 2012 — earlier than Petraeus and his superiors judged prudent. That move throws into peril their plan, which had called for shifting operations from the south — where U.S. troops have made considerable gains — to the wild and dangerous east.
Then a few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta let slip that next year all U.S. forces in Afghanistan would transition from combat to advisory work. This sent a clear signal of disengagement by committing the U.S. in advance to a changeover that may or may not be advisable next year. There are also rumors that Obama will announce a further drawdown of U.S. forces, possibly at a NATO summit in Chicago in May, and that fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 — barely enough to defend themselves in such a big and spread-out country unless the security situation takes a miraculous turn for the better.
This rapid drawdown is premised on the Afghan security forces stepping forward to fill the vacuum. Since 2009 the NATO training mission in Afghanistan has done an impressive job. It has produced a combined army-police force of 352,000 personnel. But questions remain about the uneven quality of those forces; they would benefit from more on-the-job training by partnered coalition forces, something that will be increasingly hard to do as the number of U.S. troops declines. It would also be nice if there were more Afghan forces: Traditional counterinsurgency math requires 500,000 to 600,000 security personnel to effectively police a country of 30 million people, but 352,000 is at least in the realm of the acceptable.
Now, however, according to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is discussing a plan to reduce the size of the Afghan security forces to 230,000 by 2014. Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan's defense minister, rightly warns that this "could lead to a catastrophe."
Just imagine the damage that could be done by demobilizing 120,000 troops and cops. Without a paycheck from the government and with few legitimate sources of employment in Afghanistan's anemic economy, many of them would have no choice but to make a living by working for insurgents and narco-traffickers. This could be the opposite of the 2007 Sunni Awakening in Iraq, when 100,000 formerly hostile Sunnis switched to the pro-American side. In Afghanistan, you could see more than 100,000 formerly friendly Afghans switch to the enemy side.
Under those circumstances, the demoralized and depleted Afghan security forces could unravel entirely, with Pashtuns flocking to join the Taliban while Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups join a resurrected Northern Alliance. The stage would then be set for a revival of the terrible civil war that ravaged Afghanistan in the 1990s and led to the rise of Al Qaeda safe havens.
Why would the administration do this? Ostensibly to save a few billion dollars out of a federal budget of $3.8 trillion. Apparently, the administration has decided that the $11.2-billion annual cost of the Afghan forces is unaffordable, and it wants to reduce that figure to $5.7 billion in fiscal year 2013 and to $4.1 billion by 2014. The president, for all his vaunted popularity abroad, has had little luck in getting wealthy allies to foot more of the bill.
Yet the savings from reducing Afghan forces are small by comparison with the savings from reducing our own, far more expensive forces. The administration is asking for only $88.5 billion in funding for the entire war effort next year, $26 billion less than this year. That figure will go down even further in the years ahead. It is hard to imagine that the bond markets will care if the cuts are a few billion dollars less deep in order to pay for Afghan security forces. That money could make all the difference on the ground.
Perhaps the administration thinks that it can simultaneously reduce both U.S. troops and Afghan security forces because peace talks with the Taliban will end the insurgency. In reality, the Taliban now has no incentive to negotiate seriously. Taliban fighters know that if they simply wait a few years, most of their enemies, both foreign and domestic, will disappear from the battlefield.
No doubt the president thinks he is "ending" a war he inherited. Actually he is making an even bigger war in Afghanistan far more likely, with serious consequences not only for Afghanistan and its neighbors but also for America's security.
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present," due out in January 2013.