The Afghanistan Withdrawal: A Potential Disaster in the Making

Disputes over Iraq have distracted Americans from a more important debate.

Planes carrying Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's delegation leave Forward Operating Base Shukvani in Afghanistan. (Reuters)

For weeks now, the media has been gleefully recounting what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thinks about the decision by his old boss, President Obama, to withdraw American troops from Iraq. “Panetta unloads on White House for pulling US forces out of Iraq,” read a recent Fox News headline. “Leon Panetta blows whistle on lies about Iraq,” announced Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post.

Fine. Panetta has every right to bash Obama for ignoring his advice and withdrawing too many U.S. troops too fast. And given the disaster that Iraq is today, it’s only natural that the press would cover the comments.

But what the reporters interviewing Panetta generally don’t ask is what he thinks about Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. That’s a shame, because if the Iraq-troop debate is about assigning blame for tragic decisions in the past, the Afghanistan-troop debate is about deciding whether to implement potentially tragic decisions in the future. Afghanistan, in other words, is the troop-withdrawal debate that really matters right now. Yet it gets almost no play in the media.

If it did, Americans might realize that we may be headed for disaster yet again. In his new book, Panetta says that in 2013, during his final days at the Pentagon, he “was pressing” the White House to “consider endorsing the maintenance of a residual force of 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers” in Afghanistan after U.S. combat operations ended in 2014. He then notes with satisfaction that, after he left, “President Obama the following year [2014] announced that he, too, favored leaving 9,800 American troops in the country after the end of combat operations.”

This makes it sound as if Obama promised to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity. What Obama actually said was that U.S. troop levels would drop to “approximately 9,800” by the end of 2014 and “roughly half” that by the end of 2015, and that “by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.” This month, a White House spokesperson confirmed that this is still the plan.

It’s a plan that many of the people paying closest attention to Afghanistan fear could end in tears. That includes Obama’s generals, who according to The New York Times “had recommended leaving at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for several years (my italics) after the formal end of the combat mission in 2014.” (It’s unclear from Panetta’s book whether he backed the generals.) It includes commanders of the Afghan military, one of whom told The Washington Post, “Leaving in 2016 is not responsible.” It includes regional leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who during his recent trip to the United States explained that he “requested to America, regarding the defense withdrawal subject—please do not repeat the mistake that you did in Iraq. … [T]he withdrawal process from Afghanistan should be very slow, and only then can we stop the Taliban from emerging its head.” And it includes regional experts like renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who recently called the U.S. withdrawal plan “catastrophically wrong” and predicted it “will almost certainly mean the relapse of Afghanistan into civil war and the emergence of groups even more extreme than the Taliban, as has happened in Iraq and Syria.”

What these doomsayers understand is that Afghanistan is just as politically and militarily dysfunctional as Iraq, only poorer. Afghanistan’s newly created national-unity government was stuck together with chewing gum by John Kerry after the two contenders in its recent election almost took up arms. According to Rashid, the Taliban is now active in a majority of the country’s provinces and “in many areas, Afghan soldiers are barely able to secure their own bases.” Last month, The Washington Post reported that “Afghanistan’s central government is nearly broke and needs a $537 million bailout from the United States and other international donors within ‘five or six days’ to continue paying its bills.”

There is an argument that given the magnitude of Afghanistan’s problems, keeping 10,000 U.S. troops there for a few more years wouldn’t make a difference. After all, most Afghans aren’t wild about the foreign troops currently stationed in their country. According to a 2013 Asia Foundation survey, more than three-quarters of Afghans are “afraid when encountering international forces.” And while the moral consequences of Afghanistan collapsing back into full-scale civil war would be horrific, it’s debatable whether such a scenario would seriously threaten American security. For years now, Vice President Biden has been arguing that the Taliban—while vicious—is a national rather than transnational movement and that America could deal with an al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan from the air.

I’m torn about this. What’s clear is that on present trend lines, American policy may facilitate Afghanistan’s descent into horror. And the media should make Panetta and other top national-security officials and politicians address that potential horror now.

Telling the world that you foretold disaster after the fact is fine. What takes real wisdom and courage is explaining how you’d prevent it in the first place.