Retreat From Kaboul

President Obama unveiled his plan to return American troop levels in Afghanistan to the level they were during Bush’s term in 2003.  Here is a chart, with his planned numbers in red.

What did it achieve?

What did it achieve?

Obama wants to keep 10,000 troops in country by 2015 tapering down to an ’embassy security force’ by the time his term ends.  “Obama called for 9,800 U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, along with some allied forces,” Jake Tapper at CNN says. “The number would get cut roughly in half by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2016 – shortly before Obama’s presidency concludes – the U.S. military presence would scale down to an embassy security operation, he said.”

“We will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden in detailing the strategy to have virtually all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016 — shortly before his presidency ends … if the Afghan government signs a security agreement.

Getting Afghan permission may not be easy.  Karzai wouldn’t even meet with Obama when he flew there a few days ago. “The Afghan president refused to visit the Bagram military base when US President Barack Obama made a surprise visit there to meet troops on May 25. Similarly, the American president turned down a proposal for talks at Karzai’s palace in downtown Kabul.”  Obama did, however, speak with Karzai for 20 minutes by phone from Bagram airbase.

But while US troops are now at the level at the end of the Bush administration and Obama plans to lower them to 2003 levels, there are thousands of ancillary personnel whose security ultimately depends on Western combat forces.  Thousands of contractors, many of them from Africa or Asia — some of them ex-Western soldiers — are scattered through Afghanistan doing aid and support jobs that have been outsourced to them.


Interpreters who worked for Coalition forces are especially at risk.  Two hundred and eighty are being resettled in Australia alone.  Many thousands more worked for America and as yet have no place to go. “As our troops pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re abandoning fixers and translators to the dangerous countrymen who view them as traitors. Asylum in the U.S. could be their last hope. If only we’d let them in,” writes Paul Solotaroff.

Withdrawal consists not only of pulling out US troops proper, but the Afghan and foreign nationals whose association with the coalition might be regarded by the Taliban as reasons to slit their throats.

One of the under-reported aspects of a drawdown are the problems inherent in “withdrawal in contact”.  Exiting a country under potential fire is one of the hardest things to plan.  The British Army, perhaps motivated by memories of the 1842 Retreat from Kabul planned to fight their way out of Helmand if necessary.

In January, British journalists wrote, “Army chiefs have drawn up plans for British troops to fight their way out of Afghanistan amid fears the Taliban will attack as they leave the country. Intelligence officers have warned insurgents may strike as our forces exit Helmand after the 13-year conflict …  top brass fear coming under fire while pulling out of Camp Bastion and General John Lorimer, the head of British troops, is overseeing contingency plans to minimize the risk.”


They were ready to shoot their way out. In the event they didn’t have to. But as American combat forces dwindle — assuming they do not have to pull up stakes peremptorily if no agreement with Afghans is reached — the problems of “withdrawal in contact” will re-emerge.  The US troops will have to protect with less and less. They have to secure their line of march, line of departure and both flanks all the way to the airhead or port.

The Soviet withdrawal provides a yardstick of the dangers inherent in retreat. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they only had to travel to Uzbekistan which had a border with Afghanistan to get out. Nevertheless,  “the whole time, during the withdrawal over the border, troop convoys were coming under attack by Afghan fighters. In all 523 Soviet soldiers were killed during the withdrawal.” Widespread infighting broke out after the Soviet withdrawal as factions presumably settled scores.

America has much far further to go than the Soviets. The help of Pakistan — recently home to Osama bin Laden — is less than certain. One of the wrinkles is “How Ukraine Spillover Could Complicate the US Withdrawal From Afghanistan,” as Akit Panda in the Diplomat puts it.

The key to pulling off a successful and manageable withdrawal is the Northern Distribution Network – a route established in 2008 to get supplies in and out of Afghanistan while bypassing the risky (but cheaper) Pakistan-based routes entirely. Unfortunately, despite its massive defense R&D spending, the U.S. never quite figured out a way to teleport its equipment in and out of landlocked war zones. The original Pakistan-based routes provided a quick, sea-based route into Afghanistan, over the Durand line….

Should the political situation between Putin and the U.S. and NATO continue to deteriorate, the U.S. road out of Afghanistan could get complicated. The U.S. would still find a way to get its hardware out of Afghanistan but at a massively increased cost. Airlifting heavy equipment out of Afghanistan would have massive fuel costs. The possibility of heading back south to Karachi is also on the minds of many at the Pentagon. One official notes that Karachi is still the “preferred method” of shipping everything out of Afghanistan. The problem is getting the equipment there and tolerating the risk of traversing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.


Given these problems, a “withdrawal in contact” could certainly result in a loss equal to the Soviet and to which perhaps thousands of civilian contractors could be added. Even a fraction of the loss would be regarded as a military catastrophe.  “Thomas Ruttig, expert at the Afghan Analysts Network, is not convinced that Afghan security forces will be able to provide security and stability throughout the country after the NATO withdrawal.” They may even turn on the people they are guarding as they did in 1842.

“The main problems with the Afghan military are its internal fault lines,” he says. The ethnic composition is imbalanced, leading to people coming to areas where they don’t feel at home and are regarded as strangers,” he added.”

At this writing, fighting between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev factions in the Eastern Ukraine has reached pitched-battle proportions.  Can Obama count on the Northern Distribution Network? Does he think so? And yet the dangers mount, all Obama has to offer is what the Christian Science Monitor called a “half-full, half-empty Afghan plan”.

Perhaps the better word is “half-assed”.

A president who flies to Afghanistan on Memorial Day for what is essentially a photo-op; who is unable to meet to Afghan president and then announces a plan to leave 10,000 men in country — to do God knows what — ‘if the Afghans agree’ is thinking more like Axelrod than the Napoleon he affects to be. For Obama it’s politics, talking points and optics all the time. Times, distances, relative forces — all the mental baggage of strategy — seem absent from his mind. There is nothing American troops can achieve between 2015 and 2016 except to cover the incumbent president’s political behind.


Obama is approaching the problem of withdrawal with the same vapid incompetence that seems to infuse everything he does. The press should call him on the specifics of his withdrawal. But given that Jay Carney will give the answer, what’s the use?

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What a waste of time.

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