A Shift in the Afghanistan Strategy

Put the National Army in Front Now

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. (Photo: The U.S. Army / flickr)

A recent trip through Kabul and Regional Command East, an area the size of Pennsylvania on the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, revealed that the U.S. role in the country is on a downward slope. U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to dial back the surge by the end of next summer, and continue reductions after that, forces one to think seriously about Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal.

In what time it has left, the United States can do more to prepare Afghans for the formidable challenge ahead. Rather than have U.S. and NATO forces clearing areas of insurgents and then handing them off to the Afghans, it is time for Afghan forces to take the lead, with the help of U.S. advisers, in clearing and holding Afghan territory. The United States will not officially leave Afghanistan until 2014. But given the rate of troop withdrawal outlined by the Obama administration, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan must begin recalibrating their strategy now.

Obama can publicly announce this shift at the NATO summit in Chicago next May, where he is already expected to announce a continuation of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Troop levels are set to fall to 90,000 by the end of this year, 68,000 by next fall, and then perhaps 45,000 by the end of 2013. During my visit, U.S. commanders made strong cases for keeping 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2013, but political and fiscal realities in Washington make that unlikely. Military officials expect that approximately 20,000 soldiers will remain in the country for some years after the Afghans assume control of their security in 2014.

Based on these numbers, the mission in Afghanistan will change sooner than many people anticipate. Obama's likely decision to decrease U.S. troop levels below 68,000 will make it impossible for international troops

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