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How realistic is Obama’s new Afghanistan timeline?

May 27, 2014 at 6:07 PM EST
President Obama declared 2014 a pivotal year in pulling nearly all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. To examine the timetable laid out by the president, Gwen Ifill gets views from former Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane.
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GWEN IFILL: In the White House Rose Garden today, President Obama declared 2014 a pivotal year in the march toward pulling nearly all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 — 9,800 — U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners.

By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield.  One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.

The bottom line is, it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s approach boils down to two sets of numbers, how many troops should remain, and how long they should stay.

Joining us to discuss the remaining U.S. footprint in Afghanistan are two people who played key strategic roles in overseeing America’s longest war. Michele Flournoy was the undersecretary of defense for policy during the first Obama administration, the number three civilian leader at the Defense Department. She’s now chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. And Retired General Jack Keane was Army vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2003. He was a prominent advocate of the military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and now runs his own consulting firm.

Michele Flournoy, we now are at 32,000 troops on the ground. The president is talking about 9,800. What’s — why is that a magic number?

MICHELE FLOURNOY, Former Defense Department Official: Well, I think the commanders on the ground had asked for about 10,000 troops to support two missions.

One is continue the advising and assisting of Afghan forces as they develop and take the lead for securing the country. Then the second is the ability to support joint counterterrorism operations. So, I think that 9,800 number is quite robust. It’s very close to what commanders on the ground recommended to the president.

GWEN IFILL: Jack Keane, is that about the right number?

GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: Oh, it’s not even close.

The commanders recommended 13,500. They wanted it conditions-based, not an arbitrary exit date. The only president has done here is changed the total withdrawal of troops from 2014 to 2016, and not much of a residual force is going to be in place; 9,800 troops will only be there for one year, and that will cut in half at the end of 20145.

And as a matter of fact, Gwen, this president has never accepted a force level recommendation from his commanders, not General Petraeus and McChrystal. For the level of the surge forces in Afghanistan, they wanted a minimum of 40,000. They got 30,000.

Not General Austin, who recommended a robust residual force in Iraq at the conclusion of that war in 2011. They got nothing. And not here with this recent recommendation of 13,500 troops, and make it condition-based, as opposed to an arbitrary timetable.

GWEN IFILL: Michele Flournoy.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think, if you look at the 13,500 recommendation, that really is looking — you have got to look at the NATO force as a whole. And I think this commitment of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops will elicit that additional support from our key NATO allies, and then the total will be very close to that.

GWEN IFILL: That’s part of the plan or is that just part of the hope?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: No, I think there have been active discussions with our NATO allies and there’s very high confidence that they will contribute alongside us to the ongoing mission.

I think the more controversial part of this is the timeline, but I think one thing that needs to be clarified is, at the end of 2016, the president has talked about an office of security cooperation, which is sort of the normal model for security assistance to various allies and partners around the world.

Some of those offices can be quite robust, including several hundred trainers on the ground doing regular work with militaries. So the question of whether it’s zero, whether it’s several hundred, what that number will be in that construct is still an open question. And that will be informed by positions on the ground, presumably.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the timeline, then, General Keane.

Do you think that this timeline, having it by next year and then drawing it almost completely down in two years, does that sound right to you?

GEN. JACK KEANE: No, that’s not a serious proposal.

We are going to have 9,800 troops beginning with next year, 2015, and that force will only remain at 9,800 for one year. That’s not a residual force, a military partnership with the Afghan national security forces to assist them and also to be able to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Anybody that’s ever looked at the map of Afghanistan knows that you cannot conduct counterterrorism missions from a single base. That is impossible, given the scale of that country and the challenges that are there.

What’s going to happen to us, Gwen, is we’re going to risk squandering the gains that we have made, just as we did in Iraq. We’re about to repeat the same mistake again.

GWEN IFILL: Part of the argument that he made at the White House today, that the president made, and his senior officials also made, was that things are better in Afghanistan. And is — are they better?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: There’s been tremendous progress on the security front, certainly on the elections. They just had very successful elections, which will continue into a second round on development.

But this — the fight for Afghans is not over. There’s still an insurgency. There are still very real security problems and other development problems on the ground. So they will be continuing their efforts for quite some time.

But the nearly 10,000 troops will allow us to cover down on all of the Afghan diversions where they are deployed, the sort of — on the four corners of Afghanistan, if you will, at least as long as the force is that big. As the force comes down in size, yes — in size, it will have to constrict to a smaller footprint.

I think the real question is, how do the conditions evolve on the ground? I think, today, we can’t know if it’s going to be enough or not enough, because we won’t know until we see how things evolve on the ground over the next two years.

GWEN IFILL: These numbers are just a goal?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think — I think that it’s the president’s plan, but I would hope that, as we execute the plan, we’re informed by how conditions on the ground actually evolve.

How does the ANSF perform? What happens with the insurgency and security write large? And that should be taken into consideration as we actually execute. And if things are — if our assumptions aren’t holding, the — changes should be made.

GWEN IFILL: Jack Keane, let’s talk about how things seem to be on the ground right now. There has been much discussion over the years about whether the Afghan security forces are ready to take over protecting their country from al Qaeda and other forces on their own. Has that changed?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Yes, they — I agree totally with Secretary Flournoy here that there has been significant improvement in the Afghan national security forces, and particularly with the stability and security we were able to achieve in the south.

That is where we put the 30,000 surge forces, largely in the south. And we truly drove the Taliban out of there. They have tried to come back, but the security forces, by and large, have been able to hold their own in that area. The concern has always been in the east.

We were never able to put in there any of the surge forces, because the president, over the objection of General Petraeus, withdrew those surge forces after 18 months, as he had announced at his previous West Point speech. So that is an unstable situation, where the Haqqani Network operates in the east.

And the Afghans have really got their hands full in that area, and this is where the counterterrorism mission would be largely applied from Kabul all the way to the Pakistani border, and also where a lot of the security assistance for the Afghan security forces would have to take place. And I think we’re going to put a lot of that at risk, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: There’s a big if in today’s plan, which is that this bilateral security agreement has to be signed that Hamid Karzai has resisted signing, Michele Flournoy, up until now. Do you have reason to be optimistic that it can be signed by the two gentlemen in the runoff?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Yes, I do.

I think both candidates who are in the runoff, both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have indicated that will sign. As one of their first acts, they will sign the BSA if elected president. They have given strong reassurances. I think the president conditioned his announcement today on the BSA being signed. But I think that is a very likely event once the elections are concluded.

GWEN IFILL: Jack Keane, is that realistic?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Yes.

I think there is a thought that maybe they wouldn’t sign, given they don’t like it. But the fact of the matter is, they will sign it. But I do believe while they will — I don’t think they will argue with the administration over the number, I do think — I’m convinced that either one of those who — who is elected president will, in fact, try to get that timeline extended beyond 2016 with the 10,000 number, not with the 5,000 number, so it can truly make a difference.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back to those two numbers. Which is the more crucial number as we move forward, that timeline or that troop level, Michele Flournoy?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Well, I think the initial troop level is very important to reassure the Afghans and stop some of the hedging behavior that was induced by people talking to go — talking about going immediately to zero.

So I think that is important. But, over time, I do think that we need to make sure that whatever drawdown timeline we have, we keep checking that against conditions on the ground and, if necessary, make — make adjustments.

GWEN IFILL: Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense, and General Jack Keane, retired four-star general, thank you both very much.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thank you.