I’m in a C-17 transport plane with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to a change-of-command ceremony in Kabul, at which Gen. “Fighting Joe” Dunford will take over responsibility for the toughest, most thankless job in the military — overseeing the supposed “end” of our Afghan war.
Dempsey stressed the symbolism of the command transfer to reporters with him: Dunford will be final commander of international forces in Afghanistan, tasked with winding down America’s longest war.
The glidepath is set for the drawdown. Yet there is a real prospect the country could revert to chaos and re-emerge as a jihadi haven if the U.S. exit is badly managed. Dunford is taking over at a time when some of the war’s toughest challenges lie ahead.
“The greatest challenge will come as he covers the period between now and December 2014,” Dempsey said during a stopover in Germany.
Dunford will have to continue the fight against al-Qaida and its allies even as he directs the withdrawal of most of the remaining U.S. troops with staggering amounts of equipment. He also must oversee the transition, by next summer, to full security control by Afghan forces (ready or not).
Moreover, the four-star Marine general will be dealing with a conflict in which the American public and Congress have lost interest. (In eight hours of confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, there were about 37 mentions of Afghanistan and more than 130 of Israel.)
More daunting, Dunford will be pursuing a White House strategy into which he had no input and whose details remain murky.
The post-2014 mission has been defined in broad terms: training and assisting Afghan forces and continuing the fight against global terrorism. But depending on the details, that could involve as few as 2,500 or as many as 20,000 troops; it could hew to a narrow counterterror mission or a broader effort to upgrade Afghan forces and boost morale.
Signals from the White House are contradictory. Recently, a senior administration official said a “zero option” was being considered for after 2014.
“No one has ever mentioned zero to me and I would never recommend zero,” Dempsey said. So why did the White House raise that prospect and start rumors in Kabul?
Floating the zero option seems even stranger because the performance of Afghan security forces will depend as much on Afghan perceptions of our intent as it will on numbers. If Afghan forces believe the United States is heading headlong for the exits, they may crumble.
If Afghanistan’s neighbors — Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia — conclude that the administration is mainly focused on leaving, they will line up proxies for the next Afghan civil war.
“What really hangs in the balance,” Dempsey says, “is the confidence level of Afghan forces” along with the Afghan public’s confidence in them. So how do we convince Afghans we won’t abandon them after 2014?
One way, says Dempsey, is to conclude a bilateral security agreement with Kabul that would enshrine cooperation after 2014.
During his confirmation hearings in November, Dunford said such an agreement would not only show “that we are committed to the long term” but also would encourage coalition partners to commit to similar arrangements with Kabul. That, in turn, would influence Pakistan, which still lets the Taliban operate out of its territory.
Yet negotiations with Afghanistan on the bilateral accord have dragged on, although they are supposed to be completed no later than May. Given the administration’s failure to reach a similar security accord with Iraq, one has to wonder if the White House has the will to conclude this one.
Dempsey believes the odds are better for reaching an accord with the Afghans because the process started earlier and the Afghan government has more reason to want a deal than the Iraqis did.
But before an accord can be reached, the White House must decide on its post-2014 strategy.
As we descend into Bagram air base outside Kabul, I can’t help thinking: The sooner that strategy becomes clear, the better “Fighting Joe” Dunford’s prospects will be.
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