Last week, Eli Lake reported on a growing rift between the White House and the defense and intel communities on the threat assessment of al-Qaeda, especially in relation to the expected NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the year. Lake follows up today at The Daily Beast by taking a closer look at the split on Afghanistan, and the Pentagon’s opposition to the “zero option” of complete withdrawal. With an al-Qaeda renaissance taking place in the country, even a 10,000-troop residual force may not be enough to combat it:
Pressure is mounting on President Obama to keep at least 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years to come. Some top intelligence and military officers now fighting that war say the number of troops under consideration by the White House should be just enough to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing a safe haven. Others aren’t so sure that even the 10,000 can keep the terror group and its allies at bay.
The stakes in the troop decision couldn’t be higher. Not only will it help shape the relationship between Obama and his national security state during the president’s final years in office, but in a very real way, the decision could determine the final outcome of America’s longest war. There are top military and intelligence officials who are deeply concerned about what the president might do next.
“The bottom line is that 10,000 troops is not enough to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “As a result, they will come back. We have decided as a political leadership that we can live with this.” …
While 10,000 U.S. forces in mid-2014 represents what looks like the limit of what Obama may agree to leave in Afghanistan past 2014, at one point it was considered the bare minimum. Dunford’s predecessor, Gen. John Allen, recommended in 2013 that Obama leave 20,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014 and said 10,000 troops would represent a “high-risk option,” according two U.S. military officials who worked on the planning documents.
Is Obama listening to this advice? In remarks yesterday at the Memorial Day service at Arlington, Obama hinted at leaning toward full withdrawal as he highlighted the coming end of the war in Afghanistan:
On the other hand, the Associated Press drew a very different conclusion after Obama’s remarks to the troops in Afghanistan:
President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan for a surprise visit Sunday and made clear that the U.S. will likely maintain a limited role here even after its combat mission ends this year and America’s longest war comes to a close.
“America’s commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure,” he pledged.
Speaking to troops gathered in an airplane hangar on this sprawling military base, Obama said the war had reached a pivotal point, with Afghan forces assuming primary responsibility for their country’s security. But while many of the 32,800 U.S. forces now in Afghanistan will leave in the coming months, Obama said a continued military presence could help protect gains made during nearly 13 years of fighting.
“After all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win and we’re going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country,” Obama declared. …
The president appeared optimistic that the Afghan government soon would sign a bilateral security agreement allowing the U.S. to keep some forces in the country to train Afghans and launch counterterrorism operations. He has been considering keeping up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and said he would announce his decision shortly.
I’d expect to see Obama do both — declare victory, and keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. The zero-option turned into a political, tactical, and strategic disaster for the US in Iraq, leaving us without an option to put pressure on AQ’s back door in western Iraq while hijacked the Syrian civil war. It also abandoned Iraq to Iran’s influence, whereas the residual forces that Nouri al-Maliki wanted could have provided us at least some leverage in Baghdad. With Hamid Karzai out of the way, there’s no good reason to repeat the same failure in Kabul.
Update: The military apparently won the internal debate:
— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) May 27, 2014
And from Huffington Post’s Sam Stein:
Full comment from senior administration official about the future of America in Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/eZUS8ngK0S
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) May 27, 2014
Update: By next year, though, that number will get cut in half:
Obama to announce plans to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. By end of 2015, number to be cut roughly in half.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) May 27, 2014
Will that be enough? Only if the native Afghan army can take up the slack, and that’s going to be a topic of some debate over the next year.
Update: The zero option will get implemented in 2016:
#BREAKING US plans full Afghan withdrawal by end 2016, official says
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 27, 2014
We’ll see. If AQ becomes as active as the Pentagon fears, that may be politically untenable, even in an election year. Olivier Knox adds an important clarification:
@EdMorrissey That's correct, except that "zero option" generally narrowly applied to "period after 2014" b/c usually about "residual force"
— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) May 27, 2014