As the endgame in Afghanistan nears, debate over the pace of withdrawal has intensified. Commanders in Afghanistan worried about ground conditions have argued for a slow transition. Some officials in Congress and the White House have pushed for an accelerated withdrawal, citing political concerns about declining popular support for the war effort.
Few have argued for a faster withdrawal based on what is best for Afghanistan. The proponents of a more gradual transition argue that pulling out too quickly could lead to a split in the army, mass defections, or even the collapse of the government. These are real possibilities. What is certain is that at some point in the near future, western troops will depart and the Afghan army and police will face a trial by fire.
It would be better for Afghanistan to face that trial sooner rather than later, before the Taliban manage to recover from the surge of US forces and while there is still time for the government to adjust to independence. Continuing with the current gradualist effort will only delay the inevitable and give the Taliban time to prepare for another offensive.
There is little additional value to be gained from another year or two of advising and training at the tactical level. If after more than a decade the Afghan security forces cannot operate without foreign partners and embedded advisors, they will never be able to.
For years now, US and NATO forces have operated closely with their Afghan partners – patrolling alongside them, supporting them logistically, and helping them plan and execute operations. Afghan soldiers and police have taken heavy casualties and fought bravely and well.
Yet, rarely have Afghan units been truly tested in fully independent operations, for fear they might fail. With few exceptions, Afghans have operated only under the comfortable umbrella of western combat forces. They have come to expect that western troops will rescue them if they get into a bind and give them fuel and ammunition if they run out. In the words of one Afghan army officer in Helmand, "we like drinking the American milk."
The potential for the Afghans to stand on their own will remain in doubt until they have demonstrated their ability to do so. As long as large numbers of foreign troops remain embedded in the Afghan army and police, the perception that western forces are propping up the security forces will persist, as will the growing belief that they will collapse as soon as the bulk of US and NATO troops depart.
These perceptions are among the Taliban's main advantages. They are also a major obstacle to successful negotiations. The Taliban have little reason to come to the bargaining table as long as they believe the Kabul government will not survive the departure of western troops.
Commanders in Afghanistan are understandably cautious about pulling back too quickly. No one wants to see an Afghan army battalion or district police force fail, given the amount of blood, treasure, and sheer grit that has been devoted to raising them. So far, these fears have not been realized. Helmand, for example, where the number of US Marines has been cut by more than two thirds, remains stable.
Instead of causing chaos, the draw-down has forced the US and NATO to do things they should have done years ago – such as handing greater responsibility to Afghan forces, conducting fewer operations on their own, and refraining from pushing into remote areas that the Afghan government has no intention of securing on its own. Above all, the draw-down has compelled the US pursue a political solution after more than a decade of war.
As any good parent or teacher knows, the bird must leave the nest before it can learn how to fly. When ordinary Afghans see that their army and police can function with minimal foreign support, they will have greater confidence in the future and the Taliban will not seem so frightening.
It is time to pull US forces out of Afghanistan’s towns and villages and out of tactical army and police units. The US and NATO should continue to provide the Afghan security forces with whatever they need, in terms of material support and over-watch, but should no longer patrol or train with Afghan forces or live with them on small, remote bases.