Washington is in a rush and everyone knows it
The U.S. commentariat spent much of last month ruminating over the lessons of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Left unexamined were the important lessons relating to the U.S. endgame in that country and how they should be applied to the accelerating withdrawal from Afghanistan.* I explored these questions a few months ago and Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s recent visit to Baghdad has once more brought them into focus.
Mr. Kerry’s journey, the first by an U.S. Secretary of State since 2009, was another startling sign of how the Obama administration’s hasty exit from Iraq has brought about the marked loss of American influence with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with growing Iranian clout in Baghdad. Kerry attempted, futilely, to persuade Maliki to stop nearly daily Iranian flights ferrying weapons to the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Indeed, so diminished is Washington’s pull, no Iraqi official appeared with Kerry at his Baghdad press conference and he resorted to publicly calling out the Iraqi government in an effort to gain traction.
Reporting on the scene, New York Times correspondents noted that U.S. “diplomats have seemed powerless to affect the course of events on two of Washington’s pressing concerns” in Iraq: ending the Iranian arms shipments and stopping the renewed draft toward sectarian conflict that President Bush’s military surge in 2007-08 helped arrest. A Washington Post reporter echoed this line, observing that “America’s voice here has been reduced to a whimper” and “the United States has become an increasingly powerless stakeholder in the new Iraq.” And the Los Angeles Times reports that:
Iraqi officials say Washington’s political influence in Baghdad is now virtually nonexistent…. Iran has become an indispensable broker among Baghdad’s new Shiite elite, and its influence continues to grow.
And if the geopolitical winner is Tehran, the geo-economic advantages appear to be going to Beijing, given China’s increasing profile in Iraq’s booming oil sector. Reflective of America’s truncated standing, the U.S. diplomatic presence in the country is rapidly downsizing, falling from 16,000 personnel a year ago to a planned 5,500 by the end of 2013.
The U.S. predicament can be traced back to the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate an agreement with Maliki providing for a residual military force that would have stayed on following the overall U.S. withdrawal in December 2011 in order to train Iraqi forces, help patrol the country’s airspace, and act as a check on Iranian influence. According to the Washington Post article, Ryan C. Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in 2007-09, concurs with this judgment. Referring to a security agreement, the paper quotes him as saying recently:
I think it would [have been] a powerful signal in Iraq, to Iran and in the region that the United States is engaged, involved, interested and effective.
I argued earlier that the Iraqi endgame is likely a harbinger of things to come in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the administration proclaims a readiness to keep behind a limited military contingent to advise Afghan security forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations. It insists, however, that these troops enjoy airtight legal protections. As the recent wrangling over the transfer of a key U.S. detention facility attests, President Hamid Karzai in Kabul is keen to be seen as upholding Afghan sovereignty. But he appears to be willing to extend the immunity safeguards provided he is assured that Washington will remain meaningfully engaged in the country following the end of the NATO military mission in December 2014. But the Obama administration has so far been unable to proffer convincing evidence of its staying power.
Washington’s credibility problem begins in the White House. President Obama speaks little of the Afghan war, except to score political points for bringing troops home and freeing up resources for doing nation building at home. Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks during his debate last fall with Paul Ryan – “We are leaving [Afghanistan] in 2014, period” – were so emphatic that they raise questions about the administration’s political will.
Mr. Obama’s reticence even extends to the elemental issue of the post-2014 U.S. posture in Afghanistan and how he intends to prepare the way over the next 21 months. As one respected observer puts it,
Far too often, what is officially described as a Transition Strategy has become a cover for an exit strategy: The Afghan equivalent of P.T. Barnum’s famous sign, “This way to the egress,” which used to keep crowds moving through exhibits.
What is known is that the White House has steadily been whittling down plans for a military stay-behind force. According to the Wall Street Journal, just a few months ago the U.S. commander in Afghanistan recommended keeping 15,000 troops behind. And Ronald E. Neumann, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2005-07, argues that a minimally-effective force would comprise some 10,000 troops deployed throughout the country so they can interact with Afghan security forces in the field and conduct time-urgent counter-terrorist strikes. But the administration appears to be favoring plans for a much smaller force that will be clustered only around Kabul, and a senior White House official has even suggested that the president may not keep any troops at all in Afghanistan after 2014. In Neumann’s view, if Mr. Obama were to sign on to such plans, “the signal to friends and enemies alike will be a lack of will.”
Obama’s failure to build personal rapport with Karzai as well as the administration’s muddled and inconsistent signals have further contributed to the Afghan leader’s fears that he will be left in the lurch come next year. As one senior administration official acknowledged a few months ago, Karzai “knows we’re in a rush and the last thing in the world we’re thinking about is him.”
The fiscal mess in Washington has compounded these worries as doubts multiply about whether the Obama administration will be able to deliver on its promises to provide nearly $17 billion to maintain Afghan security forces in the 2013-17 period. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned last week of even more dramatic cuts on the way in the U.S. military budget, while a new study concludes that the long-term costs of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts will put a huge dent in national security budgets for decades to come. A new Government Accountability Office report also points to serious gaps between the costs of these forces and the funding commitments made by the Karzai government and donor nations. Similar concerns attach to pledges to maintain critical economic assistance to Kabul.
What one observer calls the administration’s “non-committal relationship” with Karzai extends to the diplomatic realm. A few months ago, the White House’s point person on Afghanistan noted that a political settlement with the Taliban “is absolutely essential to bring the war to a successful close.” Ahmed Rashid, a keen observer of the AfPak scene, believes (here, here and here) that the Taliban is open to cutting a deal and that Pakistan is now ready to play a constructive role. Yet the administration seems at a loss on how to bring this about and has not even endowed a high-powered envoy to manage the process. Little wonder then neighboring countries like Russia, China and India have concluded that a “U.S. retreat from Afghanistan” is underway and have begun efforts to coordinate their positions on the country’s future.
*President Obama announced in this year’s State of the Union address that another 34,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the coming year. The logistical exit is expected to reach its peak this coming August with some 1,500 military vehicles and 1,000 containers per month being shipped back to the United States.