10 Facts About US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Fact 1: It is not the case that all US troops will be removed from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

In June 2011, President Obama announced his plan to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. But the president did not say that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. What he did say was 10,000 troops would be removed by the end of the summer 2011, with 23,000 additional troops leaving at the end of the summer of 2012. After that, according to the President:

our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.

Notice that the President did not say that our mission in Afghanistan will end by 2014, only that it will cease to be a "combat" mission and become a "support" mission. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has since confirmed that President Obama never said US troops would be completely withdrawn by the end of 2014.

What you should be asking yourself is, "what is a support mission?", "how many troops will be required for it?", and "how long will it last?" We will get to these questions shortly. First, it's important to highlight one thing:

Fact 2: There is currently no end date for the war in Afghanistan.

Nowhere in the President's June 2011 speech did he mention a deadline for the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and no date for full withdrawal has been specified since then. In fact, the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was struck between the United States and Afghanistan in June 2012, provides for a US military presence after 2014, although the magnitude of the presence was not specified.

On November 15, 2012, it was reported that Afghanistan and the United States had begun negotiations for a bilateral security agreement, which will govern the US military presence in Afghanistan post-2014, including how many troops are left in Afghanistan, and for how long.

Fact 3: There is no set plan for removing the remaining 68,000 troops left in Afghanisan.

Not only are there currently twice as many US troops in Afghanistan today as there were when President Obama took office, but the administration has yet to outline a specific plan for removing the 68,000 troops that remain, except that most of them will be removed by the end of 2014. A decision about a scheduled for the removal of these troops will not be made until after a decision is made about the number of residual troops the US will leave in Afghanistan post-2014. However, it has been reported that General John Allen wants to keep over 60,000 US troops until the fall of 2013.

Three options were being considered in March 2012:

  1. The drawdown plan said to be favored by Vice President Joe Biden would drawdown troops rapidly, to perhaps 20,000, by the end of 2013.
  2. A more gradual drawdown plan calls for removing 10,000 troops by the end of December 2012, leaving 58,000 troops. An additional 10,000 to 20,000 would be removed by June 2013, leaving between 48,000 and 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, still more than were in the country when President Obama took office.
  3. Military commanders are said to favor delaying further cuts until the end of 2013, including Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who was the second-in-command of US forces in Afghanistan until June 2012 and is now the Director of the Joint Staff.

Fact 4: Reports indicate that the Pentagon wants to keep between 6,000 and 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan until at least 2024.

On November 12, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that the Obama administration would come to a decision within the next few weeks about the magnitude of the US post-2014 military presence in Afghanistan. Panetta would not comment on the troop levels being considered. Since then, it has been reported that General John Allen, head of the ISAF, has submitted three plans for an enduring US presence in Afghanistan:

  1. With 6,000 troops, the focus of the US mission would be on counterterrorism missions, and logistical and training support for Afghan forces would be limited;
  2. With 10,000 troops, the US could expand training and logistical support from the 6,000 troop plan;
  3. With 20,000 troops, US convential forces could be used to patrol certain areas.

All of these options include troop commitments smaller than the 25,000 troops the Pentagon is said to have favored since Obama's drawdown announcement.

However, just days after General Allen's recommendations made news, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama requested three additional proposals in which troop levels did not exceed 10,000. The plans sumbitted by the Pentagon included:

  1. A 3,000 troop option, which Pentagon officials strongly warned against;
  2. A 6,000 troop option, assumed to be the same as the 6,000 troop option described above;
  3. A 9,000 troop option, assumed to be similiar to the 10,000 troop option above.

Out of these three options, the Pentagon is said to favor the 9,000 troop option, while the White House is said to favor the 6,000 troop option.

Keep in mind that there were only 34,000 troops there when Obama took office. If 20,000 troops are kept in Afghanistan after 2014, that means that the net withdrawal would be a mere 14,000 troops. Furthermore, before 2007, troop levels were at roughly 20,000 or less. So leaving 20,000 troops in Afghanistan would be to merely return to 2006 troop levels. Leaving 9,000 or 10,000 troops would be a return to 2003 troop levels.

If the Pentagon gets its way, the US will be at war in Afghanistan for at least 12 additional years--that's one more year than we've been at war to this point. That means that we wouldn't even be at the half-way mark today, let alone nearing the end!

Fact 5: The "support" mission will not necessarily be small, nor will it be free of combat missions.

A "support" mission sure sounds more reassuring than a combat mission, right? Sounds like only a few troops will remain behind to support the Afghan security forces?

Any close reading of the US public position on its post-2014 mission in Afghanistan immediately dispells such consoling thoughts. Just look at the plans General John Allen has proposed for the US enduring presence, listed above. Each of the Pentagon's proposals include a counterinsurgency element. In fact, the 6,000 troop plan, which the White House is said to favor, prioritizes direct counterinsurgency missions over logistical support and training for the Afghan security forces, even though it is supposedly for the latter reason that US officials claim an enduring presence is necessary. Meanwhile, the plan involving the largest amount of troops adds a patrol capacity, which is clearly a combat, not a support, capacity. It is likely that a combat capacity is emphasized in the Pentagon's plans due to a recognition that the Afghan security forces, even after a decade of training, are far from ready to take over security for the country.

Further, the US "support" mission in Iraq serves as an example and a warning for the continued US military presence in Afghanistan. The combat mission in Iraq supposedly ended in August 2010, at which point troop levels were brought down to 50,000. In October 2011, over a year later, there were still about 45,000 troops left in Iraq. Furthermore, these supposedly non-combat troops would engage in combat missions and were described as having a "combat capacity" by administration officials, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in which they engage in "targeted counterterrorism operations" and work and fight alongside Iraqi security forces. In light of this, "support" seems to be nothing more than a euphemism for extended combat.

Per a previous agreement between the US and Iraqi governments, all US troops were supposed to leave Iraq at the end of 2011. That didn't stop the Obama administration from trying to pressure the Iraqi government to extend the deadline, allowing the US to leave up to 10,000 troops indefinitely. Fortunately, this plan has been abandoned, and all but about 150 US troops attached to the US Embassy left on time. But a similar fight over keeping to a deadline for withdrawal may erupt in the future over Afghanistan--whenever a deadline is, in fact, established.

Fact 6: Obama's "surge" is not over.

In September 2012, it was widely reported that Obama's "troop surge" in Afghanistan was over, leaving 68,000 troops in the country. But when President Obama took office, there were only roughly 34,000 US troops in Afghanistan. In two "surges", Obama added to this figure over 66,000 additional troops. By reducing the US troop presence by 33,000, his drawdown plan has removed only half the number of troops that he sent to Afghanistan, not all.

Fact 7: There are less than 100 al Qaeda left in Afghanistan--but there are over 600,000 Afghan and international forces there to fight them.

In June 2010, Leon Panetta said that there were less than 100 members of al Qaeda left in Afghanistan. According to the latest Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index, there are about 108,000 international troops in Afghanistan under NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom; 344,108 Afghan Security Forces; 90,000 private Defense Department contractors; and 2,000 private contractors training the Afghan Army. Additionally, there are 150,000 Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That's a grand total of 694,108 versus 100. Seems a bit overkill.

Fact 8: The lack of a timetable for withdrawal is a key obstacle in peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Taliban spokesmen have made it quite clear that peace requires a willingness by the US to leave; but the US military has done just the opposite through its negotiations with the Afghan government to keep tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Fact 9: There is elite support for an expedited withdrawal.

Elite groups ranging from the Afghanistan Study Group, which was endorsed by a large number of national security and Middle East experts, to the New York Times have come out in support of an accelerated US military withdrawal from--and oppose an extended military stay in--Afghanistan.

Congress has also expressed support for a quicker withdrawal. On November 30, 2011, the US Senate adopted a measure by voice vote in favor of an accelerated US military withdrawl from Afghanistan. In May 2012, 90 Members of Congress joined Rep. Barbara Lee in calling upon President Obama to expedite the withdrawal. And in November 2012, the Senate voted 62-33 in favor of a measure that calls upon President Obama to continue withdrawing US troops at a steady pace, to end all regular US combat missions in Afghanistan no later than December 31, 2014, and to "take all possible steps" to end such operations earlier.

Fact 10: There is popular support for ending the war now.

Although polls of American public opinion on US withdrawal from Afghanistan tend to conflate the withdrawal of all "combat" troops with the withdrawal of all troops, majorities are still shown to oppose an indefinite US military presence in Afghanistan. A March 2012 Gallop poll reported 50% of Americans in favor of withdrawing all US troops before 2014, with an additional 24% favoring a full withdrawal by the end of 2014. An October 2012 Pew poll found an even greater majority in favor of a quick withdrawal: 60% of Americans said they wanted US troops removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while only 35% support leaving US troops there "until the situation stabalizes."

What is perhaps most interesting about some of these polls is that they seem to reflect a general confusion over President Obama's plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Pew poll, for example, reported that 73% of Democrats supported a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of waiting. Yet, 66% of Democrats say that President Obama is handling the removal of US troops "about right."

Also interestingly, the Pew poll reported 25% of Republicans said that President Obama is removing troops too slowly.