Afghanistan: Understanding the Administration's Transition Strategy

The Administration’s plan ends the U.S. combat mission about as quickly as possible without endangering our core interests. America is transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014 so Afghanistan can continue the combat mission against al Qaeda and defend its borders with minimal U.S. support.1 This plan follows longstanding military doctrine of transitioning security responsibilities to local forces as part of counterinsurgency operations.2

  • The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual states that transition is critical to victory, as “eventually all foreign armies are seen as interlopers or occupiers; the sooner the main effort can transition to [host nation] institutions, without unacceptable degradation, the better."3
  • We are more than halfway through transitioning security responsibilities to the Afghan government. Afghans already provide security for 75% of their own people, and they will take over security responsibilities completely by 2014.4

Throughout history, insurgencies have seldom been defeated by foreign forces. Instead, they have been ultimately beaten by indigenous forces. … transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.

— Gen. John R. Allen, Fmr. Senior U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, March 22, 20125

Afghan Security Forces6

Afghan Security Forces

Our efforts to transition to local forces should not be termed a “pullout” or a “drawdown,” because we are not abandoning this country to our common enemies. Transitioning combat responsibilities from the U.S. military to local forces coincides with improving Afghan capabilities. 

  • The combined strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is approaching our goal of 352,000.7 Most coalition missions are carried out with Afghan support, and an increasing number are led by Afghan troops.
  • The long transition ensures that the overall abilities of U.S.-Afghan forces improve while the mix of forces changes.

Immediate “withdrawal” is neither practical nor wise.Transitioning combat responsibilities from U.S. forces to Afghan ones is no easy feat. This effort requires the U.S. military to move $57 billion worth of equipment, including 53,000 vehicles and 100,000 railroad container-sized boxes of combat-related materiel from a landlocked country with few roads or airports.8

NATO Overland Routes In and Out of Afghanistan9

NATO Overland Routes In and Out of Afghanistan

  • The 13,000+ Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles in Afghanistan—the military’s primary means of ground transport—are too big and heavy to be carried by helicopter10 or to be loaded onto most ships.11 Instead, they must be abandoned, sold, or flown by plane.
  • The major road out of Afghanistan (the Khyber Pass in Pakistan) was closed from November 2011 to July 2012, after American  forces killed 24 Pakistani troops in a border skirmish.12 In its place, the U.S. was forced to use the much more expensive and lengthy Northern Distribution Network—which requires the permission of many former Soviet states, including Russia.13
U.S. Troops in Afghanistan14

U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

What is the Endgame?

The U.S. cannot unilaterally defeat the Taliban, as Afghanistan remains mired in a protracted conflict between groups that have been vying for control since the 1990s. Ultimately, it will be up to the government in Kabul—and Islamabad, to the extent that it is fueling the insurgency—to negotiate the endgame with its rivals. 

The transition is long enough to allow us to respond if local forces are overwhelmed by insurgent or terrorist groups.

It is also impossible to wage a counterinsurgency campaign without the host government’s assistance. The Afghan government has made it clear that they are not interested in a long-term American presence, and the American footprint and mission moving forward will be decided through bilateral negotiation.

Flexibility to Counter Threats

We must ensure al Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan. Since Presidents Obama and Karzai recently signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the Afghan government will give the United States the option to combat al Qaeda and its affiliates in the region from Afghanistan’s bases through 2024. That means we can continue using drones and Special Operations Forces to track and eliminate threats from al Qaeda and other terrorist groups until the job is done.

If America fights the Taliban until they cease to challenge Kabul, U.S. combat troops would remain in Afghanistan for decades longer. 

  • Since multiple terror plots that threatened the U.S. over the last decade originated from northern Pakistan, it will be important to have our Special Ops forces in the neighborhood. 
  • The Agreement also allows the U.S. to keep funding and training Afghanistan’s military and police to fight insurgents and terrorists while improving domestic security. 

Our security agreements with the Afghan government allow us to remain vigilant and to address terrorist threats before they arrive on our shores

The Strategic Partnership Agreement requires the U.S. and Afghanistan to develop a detailed plan that determines future missions and levels of support by May 2013.15 This security agreement is currently being negotiated. Congress should conduct vigorous oversight of this process and provide input toward what the U.S. mission should be in the next decade.

Afghan Govt Rev v. Security Forces Budget

  • The details of the plan are not final and the mission is neither defined nor funded. Therefore, Congress should demand Administration officials answer specific questions—on the record—about mission, scope, and troop levels before funding these activities.
  • Members of Congress should also require answers concerning the ongoing capabilities and financial sustainability of Afghanistan’s security forces—and whether these forces are effective enough without significant U.S. assistance after 2014. 
  • Members of Congress should continue to ask hard questions about the stability and political reliability of the Afghan government, especially during its electoral transition in 2014 when President Karzai is scheduled to leave office


Afghanistan remains a serious geopolitical challenge with few easy solutions. We can’t transition too quickly, but it’s time to rely more heavily upon local forces. The White House’s plan is the most practical roadmap forward.

End Notes