Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Abandon Afghanistan? A dumb idea

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
January 10, 2013 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines Regiment start their patrol in Helmand Province on June 27.
U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines Regiment start their patrol in Helmand Province on June 27.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • White House aide suggested all U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan
  • Peter Bergen said the idea would be dangerous and send the wrong message
  • He says U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan before and saw the rise of the Taliban
  • Bergen: U.S. is seeking agreement that military will have immunity from prosecution

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet with President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss the post-2014 American presence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has already given Obama options under which as few as 6,000 or as many as 20,000 soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Those forces would work as advisers to the Afghan army and mount special operations raids against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Read more: U.S. may remove all troops from Afghanistan after 2014

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

But on Tuesday, Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser, told reporters that the Obama administration is mulling the idea of removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission finishes at the end of 2014.

This may be a negotiating ploy by the Obama administration as it gets down to some hard bargaining with Karzai, who has long criticized many aspects of the U.S. military presence and who is likely to be reluctant to accede to a key American demand: That any U.S. soldiers who remain in Afghanistan after 2014 retain immunity from prosecution in the dysfunctional Afghan court system. It was this issue that led the U.S. to pull all its troops out of Iraq in December, 2011 after failing to negotiate an agreement with the Nuri al-Maliki government.

Read more: Defense officials to press Karzai on what he needs

Or this may represent the real views of those in the Obama administration who have long called for a much-reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and it is also in keeping with the emerging Obama doctrine of attacking al Qaeda and its allies with drones but no American boots on the ground. And it certainly aligns with the view of most Americans, only around a quarter of whom now support the war in Afghanistan, according to a poll taken in September.

Security Clearance: Afghanistan options emerge

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In any case, zeroing out U.S. troop levels in the post-2014 Afghanistan is a bad idea on its face -- and even raising this concept publicly is maladroit strategic messaging to Afghanistan and the region writ large.

Why so? Afghans well remember something that most Americans have forgotten.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, something that was accomplished at the cost of more than a million Afghan lives and billions of dollars of U.S. aid, the United States closed its embassy in Afghanistan in 1989 during the George H. W. Bush administration and then zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world under the Clinton administration. It essentially turned its back on Afghans once they had served their purpose of dealing a deathblow to the Soviets.

Prince Charles: I worry about Harry
Meet Afghanistan's future
Afghans: 'We don't need the Americans'
U.S. troop level options in Afghanistan

As a result, the United States had virtually no understanding of the subsequent vacuum in Afghanistan into which eventually stepped the Taliban, who rose to power in the mid-1990s. The Taliban granted shelter to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization from 1996 onward.

Read more: Court considers demand that U.S. release photos of bin Laden's body

After the overthrow of the Taliban, a form of this mistake was made again by the George W. Bush administration, which had an ideological disdain for nation building and was distracted by the Iraq War, so that in the first years after the fall of the Taliban, only a few thousand U.S. soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan.

The relatively small number of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan helped to create a vacuum of security in the country, which the Taliban would deftly exploit, so that by 2007, they once again posed a significant military threat in Afghanistan.

In 2009, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan to blunt the Taliban's gathering momentum, which it has certainly accomplished.

Read more: Inside the Taliban

But when Obama announced the new troops of the Afghan surge, most media accounts of the speech seized on the fact that the president also said that some of those troops would be coming home in July 2011.

This had the unintended effect of signaling to the Taliban that the U.S. was pulling out of Afghanistan reasonably soon and fit into the longstanding narrative that many Afghans have that the U.S. will abandon them again.

Similarly, the current public discussion of zero U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014 will encourage those hardliner elements of the Taliban who have no interest in a negotiated settlement and believe they can simply wait the Americans out.

It also discourages the many millions of Afghans who see a longtime U.S. presence as the best guarantor that the Taliban won't come back in any meaningful way and also an important element in dissuading powerful neighbors such as Pakistan from interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

Read related: Afghanistan vet finds a new way to serve

Instead of publicly discussing the zero option on troops in Afghanistan after 2014, a much smarter American messaging strategy for the country and the region would be to emphasize that the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the United States has already negotiated with Afghanistan last year guarantees that the U.S. will have some form of partnership with the Afghans until 2024.

In this messaging strategy, the point should be made that the exact size of the American troop presence after 2014 is less important than the fact that U.S. soldiers will stay in the country for many years, with Afghan consent, as a guarantor of Afghanistan's stability.

The United States continues to station thousands of troops in South Korea more than five decades after the end of the Korean War. Under this American security umbrella, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest.

It is this kind of model that most Afghans want and the U.S. needs to provide so Afghanistan doesn't revert to the kind of chaos that beset it in the mid-1990s and from which the Taliban first emerged.

Read more: What's at stake for Afghan women?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT