November 24, 2020 | Policy Brief

Rushed Afghanistan Drawdown Likely to Benefit Al-Qaeda

November 24, 2020 | Policy Brief

Rushed Afghanistan Drawdown Likely to Benefit Al-Qaeda

Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced last week an order to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500, to be completed by January 15, 2021. Justified as a move to end “perpetual war,” the decision ignores the risk of an al-Qaeda resurgence and that the U.S. military has already drastically reduced its presence in Afghanistan while transitioning to an emphasis on supporting local partners in the fight against terrorism.

The withdrawal order follows President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and installation of senior officials eager to scale back U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In his initial message to the force, Acting Secretary Miller wrote, “This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic errors of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”

Yet the drawdown in Afghanistan will undercut the very objective of defeating al-Qaeda, which remains closely tied to the Taliban as the latter controls or contests over 50 percent of Afghanistan. Should the United States draw down its modest, sustainable posture in Afghanistan, it would be handing not only the Taliban but also al-Qaeda a crucial victory. Likewise, ISIS, which, according to a Pentagon assessment, “maintains the ability to conduct mass casualty attacks,” is likely to reconstitute in eastern Afghanistan and strengthen its connections to regional affiliates.

Acting Secretary Miller said the United States must transition “from a leadership to supporting role,” yet, by and large, this is already the case. American personnel currently train, advise, and assist their Afghan partners, while also conducting counterterrorism operations. Further reducing U.S. troops to 2,500 will likely strain the force and undermine both of those missions.

The Pentagon directive, which reflects the political agenda of President Trump rather than battlefield realities, has been met with bipartisan opposition.

Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the planned reductions were a “mistake” that would “undercut negotiations” in Afghanistan, as “the Taliban has done nothing — met no condition — that would justify this cut.”

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the decision a “rash, reckless abandonment” that could “trigger increased chaos and violence in Afghanistan that emboldens the Taliban, ISIS, and terrorist networks.”

The current U.S. policy of augmenting local partner forces as they conduct the majority of combat operations has proven largely successful in the fight against the ISIS caliphate. Building an effective partner force has proven much more challenging in Afghanistan, yet Afghan troops have borne the brunt of the fighting and likely endured tens of thousands of casualties, although the official figures have been classified since 2017. Reducing American personnel will harm U.S. strategic interests and undercut U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism efforts, which have thus far prevented al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups from re-establishing an uncontested safe haven from which to launch external attacks. Accordingly, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Afghanistan “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands.”

President Trump should end his term by fulfilling his own past commitment that changes in troop levels should be conditions-based, not calendar-based. Reducing our current force posture would hand a victory to transnational terrorist organizations, undermine the security of our allies, and make Americans less safe.

Dylan Gresik is a government relations analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Dylan and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Dylan on Twitter @DylanGresik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Afghanistan Al Qaeda Islamic State Jihadism Military and Political Power The Long War U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy