Obama Plans for complete US Withdrawal from Afghanistan in December

(By Juan Cole)

America’s longest war may be over by the end of this year, and it is making Afghans and neighbors like Pakistan nervous.

On Tuesday President Obama called Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the first time since last summer, saying that since Karzai had declined to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement, he had no choice but to begin a complete US military withdrawal. Getting 33,000 American troops and all their military equipment out of the country will take many months. Without a BSA, US troops who engaged in firefights in Afghanistan could be at risk from legal action. The US military will have no choice but to leave abruptly if the agreement is not signed by December. Since it might have to decamp, it has to start the process of complete withdrawal now.

The possibility of a “zero option” or complete US withdrawal can no longer be entirely ruled out.

Karzai is a very lame duck and presidential elections are scheduled for April. There may be a run-off election, however, so that he may not have a successor until June. (One of the major candidates is his brother). If the US is to be out by Dec. 31, the withdrawal will have to be at an advanced stage by June. So President Obama has no choice but to behave as if there will not be a BSA. Keeping on 5,000 troops and some equipment at a handful of small bases will not be difficult if Karzai’s successor decides to sign the SOFA. There is also some question in Afghanistan as to whether the parliament needs also to approve such a treaty. It is not clear whether parliament would vote positively on this issue.

The White House issued this description of the conversation:

“With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”

High Pakistani officials say they are alarmed that the Kabul government and military is not up to confronting the Taliban and other insurgents by itself. The Afghanistan National Army will likely need US air support for many years to come.

Just this weekend, nearly two dozen Afghanistan troops were ambushed by the Taliban and killed in one province, which sent a shiver through Afghanistan.

The Taliban attacked an Afghan military base this past weekend and killed 21 soldiers. . Some Afghans are blaming Karzai for being weak and for not resorting to US close air support. Karzai seems to be seeking a negotiated settlement with the Taliban after the US leaves.

BBC Monitoring translates this para. from the Afghanistan press:

Sarnawesht … : “A question has arisen after the killing of the National Army soldiers in Konar Province, how this incident took place?… Now it is clear that the Afghan National Army have called in the US air support, but the foreign troops did not provide them with [air] support because President Karzai ordered the Afghan forces that they cannot ask the foreign troops for help. If the decree and order of the president is of importance for the US forces, then why did they carry out attack on Ghorband and killed civilians? Why did they kill children in Helmand Province? It is a matter of concern that the US forces do not provide support when they are asked for help and when it is needed, but they carry out attack and kill innocent civilians when they are not needed and when they are not asked for help. Their [US forces] behaviour implies that they are not engaged in war against the [armed] opponents, but against the Afghan people.”

Whether the Afghanistan National Army can stand up to the Taliban is one question. Another is, if Afghans still can’t stand up to the Taliban after a decade of US aid, when exactly would the billions poured into the country finally bear fruit?


Related video:

CBS reports, “Obama gives Karzai ultimatum on U.S. troops in Afghanistan ”

39 Responses

  1. I’m not sure why any Pakistani official wouldn’t be pleased to see the US withdraw. Once the US leaves, Pakistan would have the opportunity to install its proxy force (the Taliban) in Kabul. Or perhaps Pakistan wants the US to stay behind to justify its large payroll.

    11 candidates are running for the Presidency and Karzai himself is working behind the scenes to have some of the candidates merge into some coalition so Dr. Abdullah (Karzai’s rival) doesn’t advance to a runoff.

    The Taliban is no match for the Afghan Army in frontal attacks and is reduced to doing hit and run tactics.

    With regard to the 21 soldiers ambushed, the Taliban were aided and abetted by 4 Afghan soldiers on the base. Most of the soldiers were poisoned before the assault and the others fought to the last bullet. US air power was not sought, since (a month or so ago) Karzai ordered his generals not to request any US air power.

    Anyways, so long as the Army can be propped up financially, it will not collapse, even if the US withdraws (Najibullah survived for 27 months against a nationwide insurgency and his government collapsed once the Soviets cut off all aid).

    You nailed it in your last paragraph, Dr. Cole. My personal opinion is that this conflict will be over the day the Taliban and the non-Taliban factions make peace and work together (I’m being an optimist here). It’s Afghans themselves who help promote all this outside influence. One group of Afghans support Pakistan’s policies. Another group supports America’s policies. This damages the opportunity for Afghans to unite.

    The future of Afghanistan lies with the Taliban. If they make peace, great. But if, like in their pre-2001 heyday, they seek to vie for absolute rule over the country, then I suspect a possible outcome will be a de facto non-Pashtun polity encompassing northern and western Afghanistan, uncontrolled by the Taliban.

  2. I think you’re overlooking the key issues to continued American involvement in Afghanistan. 1. The military wanted to train its junior officers with no battlefield experience in firefights, free fire zones, patrols, and counter terror night raids. 2. The military wanted to give free rein to JSOC forces to test out new tactics and strategies for dealing with indigenous fighters. 3. The military needed a locale to test out new weapons, such as lasers and infra-red items and satellite targeting, outside of the scrutiny of the Western press and independent reporters such as Scahill. 4. The war profiteers, lobbyists, and corporate suppliers wanted the avenue to Afghanistan to be kept open where a gallon of gasoline cost $400 to reach the military depots in the country. Each travel mile lined the pockets of the profiteers such as Halliburton.
    The issue of Afghans and Pakistanis being concerned about the USA withdrawing is a red herring. You may be referencing the warlords or American intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the 19th century Durand Line, is a myth for the Pashtuns. And that is the reason fighting will continue, just as the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey keep fighting for a homeland and national unity.

    • “The 19th century Durand Line, is a myth for the Pashtuns.”

      For the Afghan Pashtuns, yes; but not for the Pakistani Pakhtuns (the Afghans in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and eastern Afghanistan refer to themselves as Pakhtuns, not as Pashtuns, and all Pashtuns/Pakhtuns are Afghan by ethnicity).

      The Pashtuns in FATA see themselves as an independent polity. In 1960, Daoud Khan, Afghanistan’s President, sent Afghan troops into Bajaour tribal agency in order to annex the land back to Afghanistan. The Afghan intrusion was driven back by the local Bajaour Pashtuns who opposed any interference by Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      With respect to Pakistani Pakhtuns, they are well integrated into Pakistan’s social, civil and military fabric and they have no desire of ever merging with Afghanistan (why leave Pakistan to join Afghanistan?).

      My personal opinion is that a merger between the Afghan Pashtuns and Pakistani Pakhtuns ‘may’ take place, if not peacefully, then by force, by the Afghan Taliban (Pakistan’s own political agents).

  3. “Another is, if Afghans still can’t stand up to the Taliban after a decade of US aid, when exactly would the billions poured into the country finally bear fruit?”

    As we saw in Iraq between 2007 and 2009, the internal politics of the country are more important than the presence of US forces in making the government secure, and the promise and reality of a US withdrawal changes those internal politics.

  4. If Obama can truly extricate America from neoconservative adventurism, he will enter “Great President” territory despite Obamacare.

    One wonders how our economic and other fortunes would be today had Bush turned the other cheek and sought to build partnerships against terrorism with the Saudis and Iran etc. One wonders what progress could have been made if a fraction of the wealth put into these evil wars went to building out existing renewable energy technology, to say nothing of catalyzed research.

    Wisdom matters.

  5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from American history, it’s that there’s just no way for the American President to coerce and compel foreign leaders into assenting to an American military agenda.

    Really, Obama is helpless here. There’s just nothing an American President can do to keep American troops in a country if the locals won’t cooperate. He’s “forced” and “has no choice.”

    Look, he asked Karzai to agree to some conditions, Karzai said no, and that’s it. Game over. Check and mate. That’s the American way.

    • ” Karzai said no, and that’s it. Game over. Check and mate.”??? Ask Diem of Vietnam how that worked out. Do you doubt that there is an Afghan general on the payroll who would be willing to “do what is best for Afghanistan” at America’s behest? “That’s the American way.” This game is not over yet!

      • Apparently, my sarcasm didn’t translate well.

        Yes, of course, there are all sorts of things the US could do to get Karzai (or poor, departed Karzais’ successor) to assent to our presence, if we were really determined to stay there.

        Which is to say, if the Obama administration leaves Afghanistan using the excuse that their hands were tied, it would be silly to take them at their word about why they left.

  6. Hagel makes current noise about “right-sizing” the MICSEC. One has to wonder what that means, other than to cut the number of uniformed troops under arms and dump the money “saved” into all kinds of sexy “force multipliers” and all that stuff aimed at building and imposing the Global Network-Centric Thingie…

      • Nice sound bite. But. The thing about the actual “war” spending, in all its guises, by the Pentacle is, that I doubt very much that you or I or maybe even ANYone knows “how big” the starting point in that instantaneous “cut” calculation was/is, and “how real” any actual “cuts” will be. We were told that the Pentacle was “cutting its budget,” “$500 billion “over” (the usual make-it-look-so-much-bigger-BS) “10 years” not so long ago, when what was “cut” was the RATE OF GROWTH of the year-over-year — $50 billion a year less than the significantly larger expected GROWTH. “America’s staggering defense budget, in charts.” link to washingtonpost.com Look particularly at chart #6. Any way you look at it, even with percentages that lump Social Security in with the rest of the national spending, It Is One Huge Juggernaut.

        And of course it’s beyond argument that Congress, the public ,and anyone else who’s really interested, has no freakin’ idea how much the Pentacle spends on anything — given that the War Department both MAKES STUFF UP and is incapable of tracking maybe most of the trillions that we ordinary people feed into its capacious, infinitely elastic belly. “Behind the Pentagon’s doctored ledgers, a running tally of epic waste,” link to reuters.com (a 3-part article showing what happens to the Troops, too, and the Fake Fixes talked about here: link to cnn.com For an Administration-friendly (or less unfriendly) video version, lookie here: link to washingtonpost.com

        No amount of lipstick changes the physiognomy of the pig…

      • I did not realize math was a “sound bite.”

        The thing about the actual “war” spending,

        I don’t know what “the actual ‘war’ spending” is supposed to mean; I’m talking about the DoD budget.

        Here’s a link: link to infoplease.com

        DoD spending was $428 billion in 1987, and it was $297 billion in 1998.


        • I’ll see your infolink and raise you a “Which Pentagon Numbers Are Real? You Decide,” link to breakingdefense.com The infolink footnotes to the chart from the Center for Defense Information:
          1. Figures do not include expenses for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
          2. Figures based on requested defense budget or projections, not actual spending.

          Source: Center for Defense Information.”

          What have reported numbers from 1987 and 1998, from a “budget” that inarguably has not been audited or auditable right up to the present, got to do with CURRENT war spending and trends, your claim that “the overall budget is being cut”??

        • It’s not clear to me how anything in that article is relevant, because spending outside the DoD budget exists both before and after the DoD cuts.

          In fact, if we were to take into account spending on the Iraq and Afghan Wars, then the cut would be even more significant, because all of the Iraq spending has ended, and the Afghanistan spending is ending in December. (Or “plummeting to a minute fraction of what it has been,” depending on what happens).

          What have reported numbers from 1987 and 1998, from a “budget” that inarguably has not been audited or auditable right up to the present, got to do with CURRENT war spending and trends, your claim that “the overall budget is being cut”??

          Well, JT, you made the argument up above that the budget wasn’t really going to be cut, because (misdirection/confusion/vagueness). I was pointing out that the Pentagon budget had certainly been cut before.

          Also, the bad accounting in the Pentagon was there in 1987, and it was there in 1993, and it was there in 1998. You don’t have to find the absolute values to be reliable in order to spot a trend, if the same bias is present in all of the data.

        • Hi Joe, your statement was “Actually, the overall budget is being cut..” Your subsequent references were the misdirection. And there’s no hiding the fact of idiocy and procurement fraud and inauditability — is it a “winning point” that the numbers game has been going on for decades? I will give you that in the past, the War Budget has, as far as one can see, declined, before ramping up again. Also that foreign weapons sales have continued to climb, hardly a touchstone of increasing stability or security for ordinary people.

          As to foreign policy, it helps if all you have to do is add broad apologetic claims and factoids and and supercilious deprecations of dissenters to the line that whatever “the Administration” has done (other than Bush, that is)/is doing is Wise and Proper.

          And of course the “spending” on Iraq and Afghanistan has sort of just begun, link to research.hks.harvard.edu, unless the oath-breakers break faith, as well, with all those damaged veterans and their families. Here’s one sample of what “policy wonks” think:

          The wars not only lead to a lot of people being wounded, but inspired Congress to make the welfare state for veterans substantially more generous than it had previously been. In addition, the practice of battlefield medicine has improved substantially which means we ended up with an unusually high share of wounded soldiers to dead ones by historical standards. link to slate.com

          Thus the reason the Pentacle is invoking cybernanodronautonomous battle demons, to take the unreliable, Constitution-defending fodder out of the loop…

  7. The US-NATO withdrawal is natural, since the legitimacy of the military occupation, long has been put in question. After a withdrawal, partial or complete, many problems remain: the US bases; the Durand line, the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Pakistan military remote control operations; the extraction of natural resources; the reconciliation within a society brutalized by Sovjet and US-NATO occupation and civil war; the healing of traumas.

    I suspect that all “Talibans” are not Talibans at all, but Afghanis throwing out occupiers, now making US-NATO irrelevant. A few years ago, MI6 counted Talibans. The found about fifty.

    A pointer for the future: among others, Svenska Afghankommittén, SAK (the Swedish Afghan Commitee) has successfully worked in Afghanistan for decades, offering humanitarian and medical service to Afghanis, and is respected by Kabul and Talibans alike.

    Cheers, Björn Lindgren

  8. Many informed people, including Dr. Cole, warned that Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, his so-called “war of necessity,” would not be a success.. But instead of listening to all the warnings, Obama decided that Gen. Petraeus COIN strategy was the best option. It failed, the general moved on and so has President Obama.

    • Keep in mind that this withdrawal and its schedule was announced at exactly the same time as the escalation.

      He isn’t moving on from his policy; he’s following through with what has been the policy all along.

      • What exactly was his policy? Obama announced his escalation and withdrawal plans at the same time, but to what end?

        • From President Obama’s December 2009 speech announcing his policy: To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

          link to whitehouse.gov

          People forget that middle one, forget that, when Obama took office, the Taliban was rolling, and might have been in a position to take over the country if things had continued the way they had over the last couple of years of the Bush administration.

        • And in what way did implementing that policy serve to reduce the chances that ” the Taliban” might in ColdWarSpeak ” take over the country,” and how about those bumper years for opium production and tens of billions in ” disappeared” dollars, and item 1 gets a maybe, but point 3? Karzai’s army and government ready to ” take responsibility?”
          He’s a great speech presenter, I’ ll give you that much…

        • Al Qaeda has “safe havens” in many different parts of the Middle East and in Africa. Yemen, Syria and Pakistan are three of them.They do not need one in Afghanistan.

          The Taliban did not attack us and has not been defeated. All they have to do is wait for the United States to leave. The Taliban never intended to fight the battle of Kandahar or in Helmund province. That is part of the reason why Gen. Petraeus’s COIN strategy failed. That miscalculation proved fatal to his plans.

          Obama’s war of necessity was a waste of young American lives and money. If Obama would have continued the Bush gang’s withdrawal in Afghanistan, we would have been gone a long time ago. And we would also be out of Iraq which is EXACTLY what Obama should have done as soon as he took office.

          That would have been a “good job.”

          I’ll give him this: Obama is the only president in U.S. history to have lost a war but didn’t come out of it looking like a loser.

        • I did not realize that “take over the country” was a concept limited to the Cold War era. If you do a little reading, you’ll discover that countries were being taken over for a quite a long time before 1946.

          If I answer the actual question buried in the gibberish – How did the policy reduce the chance of the Taliban taking power by force – are you just going to go into a generic tap dance, or are you actually up for a discussion of American policy and the political/military situation in Afghanistan? I’m getting pretty sick of making a good-faith attempts to answer you, only to see you whip out off-topic note cards and bloody shirts in response.

        • Jack,

          Al Qaeda has “safe havens” in many different parts of the Middle East and in Africa.

          Yes, indeed – they have hiding places out in the boonies, where the local governments can’t get at them. This is considerably different than what they enjoyed in Afghanistan before October 2001 – bases operated openly in cooperation with the national government. I can’t help but notice that they considered that set-up (and before Afghanistan, Sudan) highly preferable to hiding out in the boonies of countries where they had no government support.

          The Taliban did not attack us and has not been defeated.

          Who said they had? Who said their defeat by American forces was the goal? The line I quoted from President Obama reads “We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny the ability to overthrow the government.” That is a much more modest objective than defeating them, and one that has been accomplished.

          All they have to do is wait for the United States to leave.

          Which brings us to the third objective laid out in the President’s speech: And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

          If the United States had left in 2009, the Taliban would have been able to defeat the central government in the field. That is no longer the case, your rather repellent wishful thinking about the United States losing this war aside.

        • Anyway, Jack, you seem to have agreed that Obama has not “moved on” from his policy, but has been consistent in implementing the policy he laid out in 2009.

    • Petreaus built his career on lying to Congress and the American People and except for a silly little sex scandal, Petreaus would be head of the CIA.

  9. As a Vietnam vet, I am so gratified that the US has finally bled enough and spent enough for the General Scheisskopfs and Milo Minderbinders to finally call an end to this particular parade. Now begins some serious concentration by those who have to cover the “out-movement” to avoid being the last one to die or get shattered. G_D bless, and may fortune favor, the ones who remain in idiocy-induced harm’s way, in “the Graveyard of Empires”…

    Interesting observation that Presidents can do nothing to keep US forces in another country, if the locals don’t cooperate. Does that concept apply to Vietnam? Iraq? Not to mention Afghanistan, for the last 11+ years? All the other places where US “war is a racket” forces are currently “made unwelcome” by “the locals” who”won’t cooperate,” or does that phrase only apply to “cooperation” by nominal governments maintained by that US presence and money? Maybe there’s a remedy for un-cooperation? For context:

    “Covert United States foreign regime change actions,” link to en.wikipedia.org

    “Ngo Dinh Diem,” link to en.wikipedia.org

    “Arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem,” link to en.wikipedia.org

    • “to finally call an end to this particular parade”

      Actually, he called this end five years ago.

      But yes, of course the President of the United States isn’t actually hamstrung and incapable of keeping forces in other countries; I was being sarcastic, and assuming the absurdity of the claim would be apparent. Of course Obama could keep the troops in Afghanistan if he wanted to. If he does not, then, it means that he chose not to, not that he’s been forced to.

      • Follow-up to Jack’s question above: Got anything wise and comforting and subtle to say to the 1,600 dead US troops, and thousands of injured, or the more thousands of Afghanis who died or were wounded, in that 5 year period that embraced the “consistent” Obama policy of escalation and withdrawal, as the idiocy continued to the inevitable denoument? Care to offer a succinct statement of the goal(s) of that policy? Other than maybe inertia and wealth transfer and weapons testing and live-fire troop training?

        • How about, “Good job. The Taliban didn’t take over the country, al Qaeda didn’t reestablish a base of operations, and the Afghan National Army stands a good chance of being able to keep the government from falling.”

          I do like the theory that actual security goals and national interests – even wrong ones! – didn’t actually play a role in the President’s Afghan policy. Nope, the guy who ended the F-22 program, the missile defense bases, and the Future Combat System just plain wanted to test weapons and fund military contractors.

          It must be awfully nice to be able to hold forth on foreign policy without having to think about foreign policy.

  10. How about a “Blessing in Disguise”? Most Americans want their troops home, and I believe that Obama’s heart was never in the Afghanistan mission–he used that deployment to justify immediate withdrawal from Iraq by calling the former the “right war” vs. the latter (“wrong war”).
    He may even have been hoping secretly that Karzai would refuse to sign the BSA and hence giving him the excuse for immediate and complete withdrawal. If so, I concur completely.

    • If Obama’s heart was never in escalation in Afghanistan as Robert Gates has also said, , then he sent thousands of U.S. soldiers to be killed and maimed just for political reasons.

      Obama could and should have withdrawn from Afghanistan back in 2009. Instead, he duped the public into buying the “good war” in much the same manner as the Bush gang did in Iraq.

      Plus, NSA surveillance has increased dramatically since Obama became president.

      Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden did try to warn the public about Obama’s “war of necessity” and NSA bullshit.

  11. Another question:
    Is there really such a thing as an “Afghan National Army ?”

    The organization that goes by that name today is almost completely run by folks from the Northern Alliance.

    Pashtuns get to participate at the lowest levels.

    • that isn’t true. It is only Helmand and Qandahar that are grossly under-represented. The Eastern Pushtuns from Jalalabad etc. seem to be into it.

  12. The Afghanistan National Army will collapse and it soldiers will go to work for various War Loads in the upcoming Afghan civil war.
    We have not pored Billions into Afghanistan, we have pored billions into the pockets of corrupt American contractors and rich, corrupt Afghanis.
    It’s time for America to realize that we have be lied into these imperialistic war to steal oil for the 1%.
    Of course Obama knew that the Afghan war was a stupid war based on Bush/Cheney’s Neo-Con fantasies, but he wanted to get elected and what were a few thousand lives and a few Billion dollars compared to him becoming top dog?

      • So why did our Rulers put the nation on the hook for a couple of trillion borrowed bucks, lots of dead and wounded “welfare state veterans,” and all the rest, the corruption, the fraud, the waste, the idiocy of ” We kill some of you so you kill some of us so we kill some of you, etc., until it’ s obvious to everyone this was another fool’s errand?”

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