Unfortunately, as the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko, pointed out in May, our personnel goal for Afghan security-force training has never been met, and the Pentagon’s own latest figures indicate the number is down about 4,700 this year from what it was last year. The standard of readiness has been lowered over time as well:
A Government Accountability Office report released in February said … that a claimed improvement in the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has been partly due to the lowering of standards by U.S.-led forces. In August 2011, U.S. military officials changed the highest possible rating for Afghan units from “independent,” meaning they could operate without help from U.S. or coalition troops, to “independent with advisors,” the GAO said.
But conditions are already getting worse in Afghanistan, as the Red Cross warned in April. Following a late-May attack on its office in Jalalabad, the Red Cross pulled some of its personnel out of the country.
Britain’s Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, commanding the UK troops in Afghanistan, warns that an increase in Taliban attacks should be expected:
“There’s definitely a sense that the Taliban would like to appear to compel the international community’s withdrawal, and certainly ISAF’s withdrawal,” said Carter, who leaves Afghanistan next month to become head of the British Army.
During a trip to Afghanistan this month, the UK Defense Minister, Philip Hammond, helpfully compared Britain’s experience in Afghanistan with that of the United States in Vietnam.
The U.S. force level is to drop from 66,000 to about 32,000 by early 2014. We should be clear that with this reduction in the force level, it will not be possible for U.S. forces to mount an offensive while also holding territory elsewhere, when the Taliban retake strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The full extent of the drawdown is still being negotiated with the Afghans; the talks Karzai suspended this week had that point on the agenda.
A key vulnerability for NATO forces will continue to be their lines of supply, and we can expect increased attacks there as well. Supply lines are a vexed issue for NATO in Afghanistan; in the last five years, Pakistan has frequently closed the Khyber Pass to NATO supplies (see here, here, and here as well). Islamabad uses supply-line closures to make points with the U.S. when we launch drone strikes into Pakistan.
Since late 2008, the logistics alternative to convoys from Pakistan has been the “Northern Distribution Network,” or NDN, which relies on transit through the former-Soviet “Stans” of Central Asia. But a big hole will open up in the NDN in mid-2014. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly today (20 June) to terminate its lease of Manas Air Base to the United States when it expires on 11 July 2014. Although Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, is closer to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan has been much more reliable in terms of customs practices and ease of logistic movement (see here as well). The base at Manas, a two-hour flight from Kabul, has been the key hub into Afghanistan for the NDN; there is no location that can replace it in this role.
Manas is also used routinely to refuel support aircraft – intelligence and surveillance, airborne control, tankers – operating over Afghanistan. Its loss will be felt keenly in that regard.
It is not too early to predict that the situation for our troops in Afghanistan will be substantially worse a year from now, if we remain on our current policy course. There will not be enough of them in country for anything but defensive operations, and their combat support resources will be available only through a set of very vulnerable pipelines.
Everyone else can foresee that. If the Taliban don’t have us over a barrel now, they have every prospect of it by mid-2014, and they know it. In light of this, it is breathtakingly stupid to seek talks with them today. The Taliban have never acted in a conciliatory manner; there is no basis for a hope that they can be talked into a meaningful power-sharing arrangement under today’s conditions. It doesn’t really even matter why Team Obama is doing this. What matters is that it’s being done. The signal has been sent: the Obama administration not only plans to leave a vulnerable troop contingent in Afghanistan in a worsening situation, but it is foolish enough – vainglorious enough? – to think it can negotiate with the Taliban.