The Changing Taliban

A recent New York Times article revealed that the Obama administration is considering withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal date, raising questions about what the country might look like after foreign forces exit – whenever that may be. The answer is critical, as the future of post-withdrawal Afghanistan has implications for the entire Asian continent.

In Afghanistan, Money Can’t Buy Us Love (Or Much of Anything Else)

On April 28, the New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg reported that for years, the CIA has been sending money to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai – sometimes in the form of actual shopping bags full of cash. According to Rosenberg’s story, the money is meant “to maintain access to Mr. Karzai and his inner circle and to guarantee the [CIA]’s influence at the presidential palace.” (The Guardian reported separately that Britain’s MI6 has been sending smaller payments to Karzai as well).  

The revelation of a regular flow of “ghost money” between a US agency and Karzai is all the more surprising given Karzai’s apparent penchant for defying and insulting his American “partners.” Indeed, Karzai’s unwillingness to cooperate with the United States despite the payments corroborates Spencer Ackerman’s conclusion: influence is easy to purchase, but leverage is not.

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper about the story, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation fellow Ambassador Peter Galbraith noted that this episode is symptomatic of the larger problems that the United States faces in Afghanistan. The money and lives we expend in Afghanistan, whether by delivering cash to the President, fighting counterinsurgency battles that are often futile, or pouring money into failed infrastructure projects, doesn’t seem to be buying us anything. In fact, it’s likely that our payments are actually making the situation in Afghanistan worse: in a fragile economy with a poor capacity for cash absorption, injections of money like this tend to end up in the wrong hands, fueling corruption and instability.

When asked by Tapper if the U.S. was getting what it was paying for with Karzai, Amb. Galbraith pointed out that the price of our war in Afghanistan is far more than what’s contained in those shopping bags: “What we’ve been paying for in Afghanistan is not the millions of dollars that have been channeled to Mr. Karzai personally” – rather, the real cost has been the “5 or 6 hundred billion [dollars] and the lives of Americans and also the effort of our allies.”

Moneybags from the CIA are, as Galbraith notes, the least of our worries in Afghanistan, but they should still serve as a powerful reminder of how much has gone wrong in the war, and how little influence we retain in a region that we have tried in vain to control.

Senate Budget Signals Commitment to Ending War in Afghanistan Promptly

A little-noticed provision in the Senate budget resolution is an interesting example of setting political priorities through budgeting.

Due to the protracted showdown over sequestration and the federal budget, this year the House and Senate budget committees drafted budget resolutions before the White House did (usually the President’s budget comes first). These congressional budgets can be an important reflection of congressional priorities and sentiment – particularly this year, when there was no presidential budget from which to take cues.

For Fiscal Year 2014, the Senate’s budget provides $50 billion for the war in Afghanistan, through an account known as ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ or OCO (which is separate from the base budget, since war is treated as a special contingency rather than a standard expenditure).

Several weeks later, the Obama administration’s budget requested a much larger  sum for FY 2014, asking for $88.5 billion as a placeholder until it settles on its withdrawal plans.

For 2015, the Senate halves the 2014 amount to $25 billion. After that, the Senate budget provides no war funding at all.. The budget resolution does clarify that reserve funding may be provided after 2015 as needed, but it seems that the preference is for any post-2015 war funding to come out of the base budget.

This is a telling provision, signaling the Senate’s rejection of the “endless war” that has become an American norm over the past decade. The fact that a special ‘contingency’ account for war has become a standard part of the defense budget shows that the federal budget takes war for granted – just like, unfortunately, much of the American public. Now, however, the Senate is using its budgetary priorities to indicate a welcome shift in political priorities.

For its part, the Republican-led House budget provided $90 billion in OCO funding for FY 2014 and $35 billion annually through FY 2023. The $35 billion is likely a placeholder, but it does suggest that the House is willing to continue to provide large sums for war funding for the foreseeable future.

It’s clear that the move to zero out OCO funding after 2015 reflects the Senate’s desire to end the war in Afghanistan, and its frustration with the lack of clear strategic objectives for our mission, as well as with the way that the war has been fought largely on ‘autopilot.’ Last year, the Senate voted 62-33 to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with 13 Republicans voting aye, showing that it had the political will to support an end to the war. Since funding affects policy just as policy affects funding, the Senate’s latest action on the budget may show that there is now a will and a way to finally bring our involvement in Afghanistan to a close.

Let’s hope the White House is listening.

Debating the Forgotten War: Election 2012 and Afghanistan 2014

America’s past, present, and future wars received little attention in the October 16 presidential debate at Hofstra University, with the only foreign-policy question focusing on the attack on the US mission in Benghazi. Of course, a 90-minute debate must inevitably leave out many issues, but Joshua Foust of the American Security Project nonetheless made a good point when he tweeted, “I remain amazed by the idea that 4 dead Americans in Benghazi should be a campaign issue but not 60,000 troops in Afghanistan.”

For those interested in how the election will affect those troops (the number is actually closer to 68,000), the most direct discussion actually came in the vice-presidential debate. Martha Raddatz asked what HuffPost reporter Joshua Hersh described as his “dream question”:

Now, we’ve reached the recruiting goal for Afghan forces, we’ve degraded Al Qaida. So tell me, why not leave now? What more can we really accomplish? Is it worth more American lives?

But, as Hersh also said, it’s too bad neither candidate answered. Instead, Biden and Ryan doubled down on their tickets’ positions on Afghanistan, which lead to misleading and sometimes contradictory statements from both sides. Ryan began, “We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition.” But later parts of his answer seemed to contradict that. Ryan criticized the concept of a timeline even as he endorsed it, saying, “we don’t want to broadcast to our enemies, ‘put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.’” Then he continued to vacillate even more, explaining, “we do agree with the timeline and the transition, but what we — what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline.”

Taken together, Ryan’s statements sound like code for “we don’t agree with the 2014 timeline.” Vice-President Biden jumped at the chance to draw a sharp contrast with the Romney ticket on this point, stubbornly maintaining, “we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.” But where Ryan’s statements were contradictory, Biden’s were misleading at best, because we won’t really be leaving in 2014.

What Biden meant was that combat operations will end in 2014, and the forces directly associated with those operations will be withdrawn. But an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 U.S. and NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan in a (technically) non-military capacity for many years beyond 2014.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed by President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May, provides for US forces to continue using Afghan military bases after 2014, “for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, training the Afghan National Security forces, and other mutually determined missions to advance shared security.” Moreover, the agreement commits the United States to “seek funds, on a yearly basis,” after 2014, “to support the equipping, advising, and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces, so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.”

Training Afghan forces, combating al-Qaeda, performing other vaguely defined security missions, and getting funds from Congress to do it all – in short, it sounds like the US role post-2014 could end up looking a lot like the US role pre-2014, just with fewer troops.

(continue reading after the jump)

The end of combat operations is, of course, an important shift, but U.S. troops will certainly continue to be in harm’s way, and American taxpayers will certainly continue to fund the troop presence. That’s why Biden wasn’t being fully straight with the debate audience when he flatly stated “We will leave in 2014.” In fact, just a few days after the debate, on October 16, Josh Rogin reported that the State Department and the Kabul government are set to begin negotiating the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  

But Martha Raddatz actually didn’t ask about Afghanistan after 2014. She asked about what will happen before 2014, raising a question that has been on the minds of many on the left and right in recent weeks: “why not leave now?” Back in September, Nukes of Hazard reported that two ordinarily hawkish Republicans, John McCain and Bill Young, had suggested that the US should end Afghanistan operations earlier than 2014, although they later appeared to back away from that position. Lt. General David Barno of the Center for a New American Security, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, has also recommended an accelerated drawdown.

And on October 14, the New York Times threw in the towel, dedicating its entire editorial page to their view that it is “Time To Pack Up.” Acknowledging that this was a change of opinion for the Times, the article argued that the high costs can no longer be said to justify our meager, transient gains:

Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two. It would be one less year of having soldiers die or come home with wounds that are terrifying.

The call for an accelerated drawdown has been relatively muted so far, except from a few members of Congress, but the Times’ about-face lends legitimacy to the argument, and will certainly make more Americans ask the question that Raddatz asked the vice-presidential candidates.

And of course, we all know which two people should be on the receiving end of that question. Afghanistan is, indeed, on the list of topics for the October 22nd foreign-policy debate. Obama and Romney may not be asked, as Biden and Ryan were, to explain why we should stay until 2014 (and if they are, they may sidestep the question). Regardless, this is a question that deserves to be debated far more than it has been, and the candidates’ answers will certainly shed light on how they hope to end – or extend – America’s longest war.  

What the 2,000th American Death in Afghanistan Means: Taking Stock of an Eleven-Year War

On Saturday, September 29, the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan edged over 2,000, when an exchange of fire between American and Afghan soldiers resulted in the deaths of two Americans and three Afghans. Pentagon press secretary George Little dismissed the significance of the 2,000th death, calling it an “arbitrary milestone.” This might be true, but the incident undoubtedly comes at an important crossroads for the US-led effort in Afghanistan. It occurred just two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the resumption of normal partnered operations between American and Afghan forces, and less than two weeks after the official end of the US troop surge. And moreover, this upcoming weekend will mark the eleventh anniversary of the start of the war, America’s longest to date.

For all of these reasons, it’s worth examining what happened on Saturday and what it says about the state of things in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the incident was sparked by a mortar shell attack on American troops, who, assuming that Afghan forces were responsible, responded by firing rockets and killing several Afghan soldiers. NATO officials initially reported that the mortar shell incident was an insider attack by Afghan soldiers, but later suggested that insurgents may have been responsible. Regardless of the specifics, as Time’s Mark Thompson points out, “the bottom line remains the same: supposed allies are killing one another.” The incident indicates the continuing inability of American and Afghan forces to trust one another: insider attacks in 2012 have claimed the lives of 53 NATO coalition forces, if Saturday’s incident is counted. Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times notes that, in another troubling sign of the divide between the supposed allies, American forces who visit Afghan Army outposts now “keep their body army on and their weapons loaded.”

But more importantly, the weekend’s deaths highlight the coalition’s seemingly haphazard approach toward partnering with the Afghan forces. On September 16, NATO command called for a restriction on joint operations below the battalion level, a decision that apparently surprised both our British allies and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.  Then, last Thursday, September 27, came Panetta’s announcement that partnering efforts were back to normal. Yet, as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman noted later that same day, little had actually changed. The bureaucratic restrictions on lower-level joint operations remain in place: the operations still need two-star general approval, which means that in many cases they won’t take place. Saturday’s clash was an example of the effects of the new restrictions, because it occurred in the midst of an operation that ordinarily would have been a joint American-Afghan effort, but due to NATO’s new policy, was being carried out by Americans alone. The New York Times’ Rod Nordland suggested that this may have played a role in precipitating the attack, although Deputy ISAF commander Adrian Bradshaw denied it when asked.

What happened on Saturday is important, and not just because American deaths reached a particular number. The number of casualties, and the circumstances under which those casualties occur, are direct products of unwise US and NATO decision-making. The sudden suspension of joint operations is one example, but President Obama’s recently concluded troop surge is another, bigger instance of our failed policy in Afghanistan. When additional troops were sent to Afghanistan as part of the surge, as Wired’s Ackerman suggested earlier this month, NATO policy never properly prioritized the training of Afghan troops,. Similarly, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of a new book on the Afghanistan debacle, argued that the surge encouraged Afghan soldiers to “hang back and let the Americans do the fighting.” These are just two ways in which the surge seems to have hindered, not helped, America’s efforts. The surge may technically be over, but every day we’re seeing more tragic evidence of its ineffectiveness – which means that every day, policymakers and voters should be taking a hard look at the true costs of war, and the casual dismissal of those costs in our mainstream political debate.  

Top Republicans Call for an Accelerated Afghanistan Withdrawal

UPDATE (Friday, 9/21): Senator McCain later backed away from these initial remarks, releasing a statement on September 20 in which he explained: “I have said that no option should be taken off the table in such a discussion, including a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. However, I continue to believe that would be the worst possible course of action.” Read the full statement here.