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The US Really Has No Idea How It’ll Withdraw From Afghanistan

It's unlikely that the process of US forces pulling out will be any less agonizingly stupid or confusing than what has preceded it.
March 14, 2014, 11:30pm
Photo by US Army

The process of leaving Afghanistan is as messy and confusing as staying, reconstructing, or doing much of anything in Afghanistan. The “Afghan Money Pit” segment of Friday night’s season premiere episode of VICE on HBO shows that rebuilding Afghanistan has become such a jumble that the US is resorting to simply pouring money on the country in the hope that things will eventually make sense. Staying and trying to fix things has been both frustrating and baffling.

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The US has been “about to withdraw” from Afghanistan for quite some time now. However, while 2014 just might be the year where almost leaving finally turns into actual leaving, it’s unlikely that the withdrawal will be any less agonizingly stupid or confusing than what has preceded it.

Sometimes the end of a conventional war is a very clear-cut deal. Wars end cleanly when one party is able to decisively establish a particular reality and the other is incapable of challenging the new status quo. Historically, the immediate post-conflict routine for the winner is typically straightforward: bases are built, garrisons are established, troops get rotated home, equipment is stored, paperwork is filed, and forces are demobilized. It’s also reasonably clear for the losers; they leave the field of battle according to terms set by the victor. The soldiers of the defeated, broken army return to their families and homes — or what’s left of them — and try to readjust to the new post-war reality.

But, as we know, wars don’t always end so crisply. Some end with a ceasefire, an armistice, or the presence of a peacekeeping force. Others end when one side just up and retreats, or when combatants utterly wear themselves out and quit fighting. Some conflicts just kind of trail off, bit by bit, until they’re over.

General Joseph Dunford, Jr., the commander of the international force in Afghanistan, gave some indication on Wednesday of what might happen should the US finally pull out of Afghanistan. This has been a matter of some debate, since nobody can tell whether US troops will remain in Afghanistan into 2015 and, if so, how many will stay. A continuing presence depends on whether Afghanistan signs a bilateral security agreement with the US, which would establish guarantees about the status of US forces in Afghanistan going forward. The US has declared that it will not keep troops in Afghanistan unless such an agreement is signed.

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So far, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. Afghanistan is scheduled to hold elections for a new president on April 5. Assuming that there are no run-off elections, no widespread unrest, no difficulty with the transition of power, and that the new president is willing to sign the agreement, then perhaps this will get sorted out and US forces can get back to the business of patrolling villages and pouring money on things.

Because of the US ultimatum, Pentagon planners have started examining the details of a US withdrawal. Gen. Dunford told the Senate in a hearing yesterday that physical and logistical constraints mean that US forces will need 102 days to move out of the country in an orderly manner. That is, assuming there are no delays, aircraft maintenance issues, weather problems, or other headaches, the US would need to start the process of leaving Afghanistan by September 20 to be finished by December 31. Adding some days in case of contingencies pushes that up, meaning that the US has to figure out what it intends to do by the end of August, at the latest. If it waits longer than that, US forces are going to have to cut corners, leave some tasks unfinished, and make tough choices.

This is further complicated by geography. There are three sets of land routes out of Afghanistan. One leads west to Iran. It’s safe to say that Iran won't grant a stream of US troops and equipment free passage through its territory. Another set of routes goes through Pakistan, although Pakistan has seen fit to block these when it is sufficiently irate with the US. The last set goes north, through central Asia, into Russia. Given current tensions with Russia, it is always possible that Russia might not permit US withdrawal across its territory either. The Pentagon has said that it will be able to manage these issues, but one has to wonder if losing major ground supply routes won’t turn a complex withdrawal into a nightmare.

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Not that the US is actually going to be taking everything with it. The military is trying to figure out what to do with the almost 1,230 “excess” Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) it still has in Afghanistan. The vehicles originally cost roughly $1 million each, once all the upgrades, field spares, and other ancillary costs are added. The US doesn’t want to give them to the local Afghan forces because there’s not much chance that they could keep them running, let alone make good use of their onboard computers. The government is willing to give them to any foreign government that will come pick them up. It costs about $10,000 each to destroy them, which is standard practice for equipment that is too expensive or too difficult to recover. But shipping MRAPs back to the States will run about $50,000 per vehicle. The Pentagon has begun distributing these vehicles to local police departments in the state, ruffling the feathers of a number of people concerned about impending something or another.

Decisions about what to do with the vehicles will be determined largely by budgets currently under debate in Congress, where there is plenty of uncertainty. Since the status of US forces in Afghanistan is unclear beyond this year, the budget submitted by President Obama to Congress contains a $79 billion placeholder for “Overseas Contingency Operations” — the funding used to pay for overseas operations during a conflict — instead of an actual commitment.

Representative Pete Visclosky (D-IN), who is the ranking Democrat of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, has said that the lump-sum placeholder doesn’t have enough information or details to be passed. But without passage, there’s no money to leave or even remain in Afghanistan. The White House can’t determine the details until there’s a security agreement between the US and Afghanistan. In fact, it appears that Hamid Karzai is capable of holding up the entire US defense budget by dragging his heels on the bilateral security agreement.

These issues might be resolved in a matter of weeks or months, but the muddled situation means that, for now, the US doesn’t really know if, when, or how it will leave or remain. Perhaps the ability to enforce rules and create a new situation on the ground doesn’t apply in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents continue to fight. But if, for sake of argument, the same measures that have been applied throughout history were applied in Afghanistan, it would be very hard to make the case that the US could leave the country at the end of 2014 and claim the mantle of victor.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr