President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw 34,000 of the 66,000 troops now in Afghanistan over the next 12 months comes as Afghan insurgents prepare for the 2013 fighting season. The accelerated withdrawal has multiple implications for operations this year.
In his State of the Union address this week, the president put the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan into high gear ahead of next year’s withdrawal deadline.
“This spring our forces will move into a support role while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight I can announce that, over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan,” said Obama.
This year’s fighting season begins shortly, and it will be the first time that Afghan national security forces - trained and assisted by the United States and its allies - will be at the forefront.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who was in Afghanistan this week, said U.S. forces will be there as a backup.
“What you’ll see this summer is that the Afghan national security forces will be tested. We’ll be there with them, and that’s as much a physical support as it is a psychological support,” said Dempsey.
The troop reduction will be gradual, allowing a sufficient number of U.S. soldiers to be on hand to provide that support.
Officials say that satisfies concerns expressed by General John Allen, who has just handed over the command of allied forces in Afghanistan to General Joseph Dunford.
Allen told reporters in Kabul this week his successor faces big challenges in completing the drawdown.
“He has to shrink the basing platform as he retrogrades war materiel that has accumulated for over 10 years, as he sends home a couple hundred thousand folks, leaving the coherence of the campaign intact, which is moving the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], keeping them in the lead, supporting them as they take the fight to the enemy, doing all of that in same space and time with less than 23 months remaining. It is a daunting task,” said Allen.
Most of the coalition forces are to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. Analysts say what happens in the country beyond that is a big question.
Ahmad Majidyar, of the American Enterprise Institute, said setting deadlines like the 2014 pullout date could be helping the insurgents.
“The Taliban have a mantra that 'the coalition forces, they have the clock, but we have the time.' So their strategy right now is to just wait out the foreign troops, and, once the foreign troops are gone, then they will just try to come back with vengeance and more power to regain some of the territories they’ve lost,” said Majidyar.
The U.S. has yet to announce how many troops it may leave beyond 2014 to advise and assist the Afghans as they continue the fight against insurgents. That will be decided in a bilateral security agreement being negotiated now by the U.S. and the Afghan.