As the process of electing the next American president goes into its
final stages, national security and foreign policy analysts are divided over the long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan, with some suggesting the U.S. military may at some point make a comeback to a full-fledged pre-2014 style combat mission.
“The U.S. has been conducting a counter-terrorism mission basically without change since the bulk of U.S. troops left [Afghanistan] at the end of 2014,” said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman believes the president “has redefined the scope of the mission somewhat, but it hasn’t changed.”
Citing conditions on the ground and recommendations from field commanders as justification, U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced plans to allow 8,400 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan
until the end of his presidency.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and
a professor at Georgetown University, believes the mission has changed
with the president’s recent announcement.
“The president did change the mission to allow the military services to get more involved in combat. Not all of them, just a couple of thousand are allowed to do that,” Korb said. “The number [of troops] was recommended by the military commander in order to be able to continue to help the Afghan military as well as beat back the Taliban.”
Retired Afghan General Atiqullah Amarkhil believes Obama’s decision to
allow U.S. troops beyond the deadline has a lot to do with growing threats in Afghanistan.
“Militant groups have escalated their attacks on the Afghan government, causing casualties to the Afghan forces. In addition, you have ISIS that has moved from its traditional base in the east to the north of the country to places like Faryab and Badkhshan,” Amarkhil said.
Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, believes the troops' presence above everything helps the morale on the ground.
“The decision to leave quite a good number of forces in Afghanistan has a very positive impact on the local politics of Afghanistan and the local morale,” Ahmadzai said.
The initial plan was to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 and reduce American troop’s presence to a small embassy-based force in Kabul. However, the president changed that plan and announced in October of 2015 that 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through much of 2016 and then be reduced to 5,500.
Earlier this month, the president announced that instead of 5,500 troops, the U.S. will allow 8,400 troops to remain in Afghanistan, citing the “precarious” situation in the country as justification for his decision.
The question is why 8,400.
Korb believes the president had a message to convey.
“He was trying to send a signal to the Afghan government that you basically can’t rely on us forever and you are going to have to do better in enacting the reforms that you promised,” said Korb. “By getting the number down slightly, he hasn’t impacted the combat mission much, but has sent a signal, I think, to the Afghan government as well as the American people that we are not going to stay there forever.”
Obama’s legacy of ending the war
One of Obama’s campaign promises in 2008 was to bring the Afghan war
to a responsible end. With his decision to allow more than an embassy-based force in Kabul, he effectively handed over that decision
to his successor.
“At this point, knowing that we are going to keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of the year that is a large enough sized deployment of troops that they can’t just pack in 21 days and go home. The next president will have to deal with this as an issue,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy analyst at Rand Corporation.
As far the legacy, Korb argues that Obama prevented a defeat in Afghanistan.
“Basically what happened is Obama stopped the defeat in Afghanistan because when he came in we were actually losing. He had the surge which stabilized the situation and allowed them [Afghanistan] to get a new government in there,” Lawrence added.
Message to regional players
Analysts believe the president’s decision also was directed toward regional players that the U.S. is not going to abandon Afghanistan and they should get on board with the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.