Don’t Rush Out of Afghanistan

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his top advisers visiting Washington this week, huge questions about the future of the NATO mission there consume Afghan and American minds. How fast can we draw down our current total of 68,000 U.S. troops (and another 30,000 or so from other outside countries) before the mission formally concludes at the end of next year? And how many forces do we have to keep in Afghanistan afterward? These questions come on top of other decisions we have been making lately, about the long-term size of the Afghan army and police and about foreign aid levels the international community will provide to Afghanistan for many years.

We should slow this process down. It is important that Afghans — and other interested parties in places like Pakistan — see evidence of a long-term partnership between the outside world and our Afghan friends. That much is true. So some clarity about long-term plans is useful. But we cannot and should not try to answer all questions now.

Making specific, long-term plans is unrealistic for two main reasons. First, we cannot foresee battlefield conditions in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond. Second, we cannot foresee who will win the Afghan presidential elections next year and what kind of partner the new president will become for the international community.

This rush to decide everything prematurely has already had some unfortunate consequences. In our efforts to be sure that future Afghan security forces get enough outside aid after 2014 to function effectively, we have already begun to assume that they must downsize by one-third — after we just spent half a decade building them up. Moreover, NATO will have pulled out most of its own remaining forces by that point, making it even harder for Afghans to also scale back drastically. It is in fact doubtful that such downsizing of the Afghan army and police should occur so soon.

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