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On May 27, US President Barack Obama announced that the last American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Assuming that the two candidates in the Afghan presidential election run-off make good on their promises to conclude a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would permit a residual American military presence, some 9,800 US troops will remain in the country after 2014, with half of them slated to depart by the end of 2015. From 2015 onward, the remaining troops will conduct counter-terrorism operations and work to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for two more years, eventually leaving only a token force to protect the American embassy in Kabul. The potential fallout of this relatively rapid departure of American forces does not bode well for Afghanistan’s future, and could exacerbate India-Pakistan rivalries in Afghanistan.
Obama’s decision should not surprise anyone. It is primarily a response to domestic political concerns, addressing the American public’s war fatigue. The swap between the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan and five senior Taliban commanders, which took place on May 31, was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of Obama’s willingness to get rid of the conflict and all its consequences. At same time, the US decision to withdraw by the end of 2016 plays opportunistically on the undeniable success of the Afghan elections: even as Obama acknowledges that the United States will not leave behind “a perfect Afghanistan”, he can present the stable political transition as evidence of a successful mission that justifies the withdrawal.
In Afghanistan, however, the real question lies in the capacity of the Afghan government to survive. Whoever wins the presidential election will have to face the daunting task of stabilising the country, with diminishing resources and limited or nonexistent security guarantees in a context of unsolved regional disputes with neighbours.
The 9,800 troops scheduled to remain in Afghanistan will likely be a sufficient force to mitigate the consequences of these unstable circumstances long enough to allow Obama to leave office with the withdrawal complete and the Afghan government still intact. But this respite will probably be only temporary, and a longer-term American military commitment would have provided greater promise of stability.
True, there are limits to what a sustained US presence would have been able to accomplish. A mere 9,800 troops would have been incapable of achieving what a much larger force has been unable to do over the past 12 years. But it would have contributed to the consolidation of the Afghan government and reassured the international aid donors, ensuring a smoother transition.
India and Pakistan are equally unlikely to be very enthusiastic about the hasty US departure, though for different reasons. Each viewed an ongoing American presence as a continued…