By RONALD NEUMANN and EARL ANTHONY WAYNE
Ronald Neumann is a former U.S ambassador to Afghanistan, Bahrain and Algeria.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Argentina, and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.
(The following article first appeared in the U.S. political website “The Hill” and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.)
The Donald Trump administration’s reported decision to withdraw up to half the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, if it holds, leaves numerous questions unanswered and policy in disarray.
A possible U.S. withdrawal has sparked deep fears in Afghanistan and concerns among partner troop and aid contributors. It throws into stark relief the need for Afghan politicians to make choices that could save their country, or, alternatively, that could speed a disastrous spiral to chaos, if they fail to forge a unified way forward.
The potential decision to cut U.S. forces in Afghanistan lacks specifics essential to turn a whim into a policy. Removing about 7,000 troops would leave about 8,000 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and a similar number of troops from other NATO nations. What would be the mission of the remaining forces? Would U.S. allies agree to a mission shift and would they maintain their presence, especially given that they were not consulted ahead of the U.S. announcement?
Currently, there are two interlocking military missions, counterterrorism and training of Afghan forces. At the end of the Barack Obama administration, U.S. and allied forces of the proposed size could not handle both missions. U.S. training teams did not extend below corps level and could not cover all corps. U.S. officials were profoundly ignorant of the situation at which combat actually happened and had few teams available to coordinate critical air support for Afghan forces. So, what will the remaining forces be used for? Will the United States leave Afghan security forces largely unsupported in the field?
What will happen to the international mission to support police forces (or the billions of dollars for economic assistance)? Will the United States neglect the primordial counterterrorism mission? Can the United States carry on the latter in a declining security situation? That seems unlikely.
Until the United States can answers these questions, we will not be able to lead our partners in designing a unified strategy. Does our NATO commitment to remain until 2024 still stand, or are we simply dropping a commitment made? How far can allies trust any new promises the United States may make? Will we see a stampede to the exit to avoid being left behind by the next U.S. decision?
How the U.S. decision will impact the pursuit of peace is critical. The U.S.-championed efforts to facilitate a peace process via Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have been widely welcomed. Even as Khalilzad undertakes a new round of visits, one must ask how can the United States effectively push for peace negotiations if it appears that it may cut forces without seeking any concession from the Taliban in return? The questions go on and on. Tweet first and think later is a poor excuse for policymaking.
Answering these questions will take hard work inside the U.S. government, with allies and Afghan partners. In the meantime, Afghans are preparing for presidential elections in July 2019. It is essential that Afghanistan emerge from that election with a strong government if Afghanistan is going to have any chance of standing up in the face of a U.S. troop drawdown and of protecting all that has been accomplished for education, women, health, democracy and the ending of terrorism. Past practice of Afghan politicians does not make one optimistic.
Perhaps one should be more charitable to Afghan politicians in view of the number of candidates in a U.S. presidential election. But, the United States has strong institutions to buffer such struggles, and U.S. citizens are not fighting an insurgency gaining ground at home. Afghanistan lacks these advantages. If Afghan political leaders repeat the past, they could too easily plunge their country into chaos.
It is unlikely that the United States again would come to the rescue. An Afghan political crisis could provide the final provocation for President Trump Donald John Trump. Analyst says Trump’s base will support him if he backs off wall funding demand. After 18 years of effort, few U.S. citizens would quarrel deeply with such a decision, although a few who devoted so much effort to eliminating a base for terrorism and to supporting Afghan reformers and reforms would regret it deeply.
No foreign policy can avoid such a nightmare scenario. Afghan political leaders will need to curb ambitions, rally around a small number of capable leaders with a chance of winning a significant victory, and reduce fraud sufficiently so that elections can produce a winner who can credibly claim a mandate.
President Trump’s decision to reduce forces may be mitigated or even, for a time, rescinded. But the writing is on the wall. A successful Afghan election leading to a strong government could be a major factor in international belief that support for Afghanistan can succeed. Even if this does not occur, a strong Afghan government would have a chance of rallying the country to stand against its enemies.
The chances that Afghan politicians will overcome past habits and avoid a catastrophic election are, frankly, small. But if they do not, and lose their country as a result, the fault will be theirs.
Ronald E. Neumann is a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He also served as ambassador to Bahrain and Algeria.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and career ambassador (ret.) from the U.S. Diplomatic Service, where he served as U.S. ambassador to both Mexico and Argentina, as well as assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs.