Is the U.S. preparing for a larger post-withdrawal role in Afghanistan?

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel greets U.S. Army troops on the tarmac of Kabul airport on March 11.
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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel greets U.S. Army troops on the tarmac of Kabul airport on March 11.

With the 2014 withdrawal looming, the U.S. is debating the size of the footprint it will leave behind

On Monday, the U.S. handed over control of all but a few detainees at Bagram Prison to Afghan forces, an important milestone as the U.S. prepares for a large-scale withdrawal from the country in 2014. However, while the prison transfer reduced the U.S.'s security responsibilities in Afghanistan, it also served as a reminder that much uncertainty remains over the U.S.'s role in the country going forward.

The prison transfer, which coincided with an unannounced visit to Afghanistan by Secretary of State John Kerry, was partly meant to repair strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pressed for greater national sovereignty ahead of the 2014 drawdown. In ceding control over Bagram's Parwan Detention Facility, the U.S. finally completed a deal that had been agreed to last March, and ended a bitter dispute between the two nations over who should have final authority over prisoners. Ultimately, the U.S. retained control over only a few dozen detainees whom they considered most dangerous.

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From the New York Times:

American military commanders had stubbornly insisted that they retain some control over decisions about releasing prisoners, which in turn led to a toxic, protracted dispute with the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Now, however, the Americans have given in, their eyes on a post-2014 security deal seen as critical to keeping insurgents from returning and keeping tabs on two of Afghanistan’s worrisome neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, officials said. [New York Times]

There is still no status-of-forces agreement between the two nations over security operations past 2014. Serious questions remain over both the size and role of a residual American-led force, with much depending on how prepared Afghan forces are to operate independently. A shaky Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), if left to fend for itself, could lead to a repetition of the Soviet withdrawal two decades ago that destabilized the country and ushered in Taliban rule in the first place, says Iqbal Khan in The Nation.

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[T]he allies remain concerned that Washington may ignore its commitments regarding Afghanistan. The ongoing process of transition from the US-led Nato troops to ANSF has resurrected the ghost of the 1989 Soviet pullout, which is fueling the fear of growing instability or a civil war after 2014. [The Nation]

Though the ANSF has hit its recruitment goals, it is still poorly equipped, poorly trained, and short on air power, meaning it is "unlikely to make a significant difference in the overall security of the country," Khan says.

There are indications that the U.S. is considering a more robust post-2014 footprint than previously projected. Earlier this month, the top two American commanders in Afghanistan advocated for a troop presence at the "highest end" of a range being weighed by President Obama. A troop presence below 13,600, they said, would limit their ability to effectively patrol the nation's hot spots.

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From the Wall Street Journal:

Military commanders told the lawmakers that the mission could be fulfilled, at greater risk, with a U.S. force of about 10,000. But the lower number would limit U.S. military operations to eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, and restrict American diplomatic and development work in the rest of the country, the lawmakers said. [Wall Street Journal]

NATO, too, is already eyeing a larger role past 2014, at least financially speaking. Reports indicate that NATO is preparing to sustain Afghan troop levels at 352,000 through 2018, rather than stick with a plan to bring them down to 240,000 at the end of next year.

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The fact that the prison transfer alone took a year to pull off highlights how difficult it will be for the U.S. and Afghanistan to reach a broader status-of-forces agreement. Karzai has proven that he's willing to go to the mat when it comes to issues of sovereignty, which has the benefit of being a politically popular position in Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. will be reluctant to cede any security responsibilities that could allow terrorist groups to flourish. It's worth bearing in mind that the Obama administration was unable to reach a similar agreement with the Iraqi government, precipitating a complete pullout that has been criticized by defense hawks.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said of Monday's deal, "The transfer of the detention facility is an important part of the overall transition of security lead to Afghan National Security Forces. This ceremony highlights an increasingly confident, capable, and sovereign Afghanistan."

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But just how confident and capable Afghan forces will be come next December — and what their preparedness will mean for American military assistance — remains to be seen.

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