The White House Is Barely Shrinking the U.S. Force in Afghanistan This Year

The war isn’t over — not by a long shot


by KEVIN KNODELL

U.S. troops won’t be leaving Afghanistan as quickly as the White House once planned. On March 24, Pres. Barack Obama announced that American troops will slow their withdrawal from the troubled country.

Though the U.S. officially ended combat operations in 2014, American troops — and funds — still play a huge role in operations against insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan.

That’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Just one day before Obama’s announcement, Afghan Pres. Ashraf Ghani visited the Pentagon as part of a state visit. He met with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter — a vocal advocate of greater military engagement in Afghanistan.

There are currently around 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The White House planned to cut the number to a little more than half that by the end of 2015.

But Ghani publicly requested that Washington reconsider the timeline. U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell — commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — has repeatedly made the same request.

Now, Obama has agreed to keep at least 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015.

In other words — we’re maintaining the status quo.

While at the Pentagon, Ghani gave a speech expounding on the sacrifices of U.S. troops serving in his country. He praised them for setting an example for Afghan troops and helping usher in a new era of progress — especially for women in his country.

But right now, both Afghan troops and Afghan women feel neglected by the Kabul government. Rampant corruption continues to plague both the military and the police forces. Afghan officials even have a nasty habit of skimming off paychecks and pocketing funds meant to pay soldiers’ salaries.

Above — Afghan Pres. Ashraf Ghani meets U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a visit to the Pentagon. At top — U.S. Army artillery troops train with guided munitions at Operational Base Fenty in Afghanistan on March 19, 2015. U.S. Army photos

Ghani has been much more receptive to long-term cooperation with Washington than Hamid Karzai — his predecessor and a former Pashtun warlord. The previous Afghan administration was infamously corrupt, erratic and difficult to work with.

Karzai frequently blamed American forces for civilian deaths and instability in his country. Ironically, U.S. troops saved his life on several occassions — ensuring his rise to power.

Even as he harshly condemned American soldiers, Karzai hungrily demanded U.S. aid money, which frequently found its way into the coffers of his family members and associates.

Karzai baffled and infuriated American diplomats and commanders. But Ghani — a former anthropology professor — is much more conciliatory. And he’s much more receptive to keeping American troops in his country longer.

Obama insisted that the U.S. plans a full withdrawal by 2017. But American troops are still playing an important role in security operations throughout the country. Afghan forces heavily depend on Americans for logistics, money, heavy weapons support and advice.

In February, the Pentagon announced it would deploy the recently reactivated 7th Infantry Division — a unit originally designated as “non-deployable” — to Kandahar province.

The 7th Infantry is a small headquarters unit. In Afghanistan, the unit will focus on mentoring Afghan commanders in mission planning, base security, rule of law and logistics.

These are all areas where the Afghan security forces leave a lot to be desired. Reforming the Afghan military and police has been a challenge on all fronts — including human rights.

Recently, the Afghan Interior Ministry announced that Kabul’s police department fired its spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai. He lost his job after he made comments on social media praising the lynching death of Farkhunda — an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning a Koran during an argument with a mullah.

An angry mob stomped on the 28 year old, beat her with bats, drove over her, dragged her body with a car and set her on fire. Her family accused security forces of standing by and doing nothing.

Officials have suspended 13 cops, pending an investigation of their conduct during the killing. Women’s rights activists have taken to the streets in Kabul demanding justice.

America’s troop strength in Afghanistan fell from 38,000 in January 2014 to around 10,800 by the end of the year. It’s since become glaringly clear that the Afghan army has enormous problems protecting civilians and its own bases without American support.

Troops and cops are underpaid, starved and mistreated, even as they’re asked to take on increasingly difficult missions — hurting both morale and retention. Washington is betting on these forces to secure a country that’s been continuously at war for nearly four decades.

Afghans know how to fight a war. The challenge is whether Afghanistan’s troops can end one.