Afghanistan Status: Summer 2013
U.S. combat troops are leaving Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Despite gloomy predictions about the country’s future, the U.S. has accomplished a number of goals, including pulverizing al Qaeda and placing the Afghan security forces in a position to carry on the fight in the years ahead.
But breaking up is hard to do, and the U.S. has serious issues to work out with Afghanistan as we end the combat mission. These include:
- The U.S. and Afghanistan are currently working out a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to determine follow-on missions. Without a SOFA, the U.S. must withdraw all forces—the so-called “zero option”—as we cannot stay without Kabul’s consent.
- We are spending billions of dollars trying to remove or scrap our excess military inventory in the country.
We are entering the final stages of our military engagement in Afghanistan, as the President has called for U.S. combat troops to depart the country by the end of 2014. There are some things to celebrate:
- Al Qaeda has been devastated in the country and is on the ropes in neighboring Pakistan.
- The Afghan military has made significant strides in competency and professionalism over the past several years. In June 2013, NATO forces handed responsibility for the last Afghan districts to Afghan combat leads.1
But let’s be honest: Afghanistan still faces major social, economic, and political problems that will take generations to resolve. And there is still open warfare in many parts of the country.
To that end, the U.S. and Afghanistan are negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to determine what sort of follow-on missions by the United States are required. Such an agreement would presumably allow Special Operations Forces to remain in the country, operating from Afghan bases to neutralize the terrorist threat in the region.
However, there is a distinct possibility that a SOFA will not be reached, obliging the U.S. to withdraw all forces—combat and otherwise—from Afghanistan.
- One of the major sticking points is the U.S. wants legal immunity for U.S. and NATO forces, which the Afghans are reluctant to grant.
- President Karzai is creating obstacles as well; in May he said he wouldn’t sign a SOFA unless the war is ended first.2 That obviously makes no sense.
Complicating our exit from Afghanistan are the limited options for transporting $30 billion worth of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan—a process known as the retrograde—which is estimated to cost upwards of $6 billion.3
- Flying equipment out is enormously expensive. To drive, we can go south through Pakistan or through the much longer Northern Distribution Network. While the former option is more direct, it relies upon Pakistan keeping its border open—which they closed for more than seven months from late-2011 to mid-2012.
- Our exit from Afghanistan also requires maintaining good relations with Kabul, which in July threatened to levy a $1,000 tax on every shipping container that crosses the border.4 While Afghanistan eventually backed down, it and surrounding countries such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan can continue to impose burdens and cause mischief that will impede our exit.
Because of complications like these, approximately $7 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan—about 20%—will remain in the country.5 Military logisticians have determined that it is often cheaper to destroy or abandon military hardware in Afghanistan than to bring it home. In fact, The Washington Post reported in June that the vast majority of 2,000 unwanted million-dollar Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles in Afghanistan “will probably be shredded” because of complicated DOD rules “governing equipment donations to other countries."6
President Karzai presumably will leave office following the April 2014 national elections, paving the way for a new government. However, it remains unclear what exactly will happen, or whether Karzai (including his family and tribe) will indeed vacate the all-powerful Office of the Presidency. If Karzai leaves, the U.S. will have to deal with another leader who may be as erratic or as hostile as Karzai has become.
Regardless of who wins in 2014, the Taliban remains a threat. Following a thwarted public attempt to jumpstart peace talks earlier this summer, the Taliban has been able to inflict significant casualties on Afghan and NATO forces. For example, in June 2013, the Taliban killed over 300 Afghan security forces.7
The broad goals of America’s engagement in Afghanistan have been met: we have pounded al Qaeda on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and we have established a basically competent security force to take on the fight after we leave. We are drawing our responsibilities to a close, amidst some chaos caused by an unruly Afghan government. After next year, Afghans will have to fight for Afghanistan.