When President Obama announced his plan to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, U.S. intelligence said it could be done safely. Now, intelligence and military leaders are privately warning that the U.S. counterterrorism forces could be needed there for much longer.
During the internal administration debate earlier this year over the way forward in Afghanistan, the CIA supported a plan to degrade al Qaeda to the point that America could withdraw almost all of its troops there by 2016. The responsibility of fighting al Qaeda would be left mostly to the Afghan and Pakistani militaries.
For a White House looking to announce a new policy to go to zero combat troops in Afghanistan by the time President Obama leaves office, the agency’s classified assessment was exactly what they wanted to hear. But the assessment ran afoul of military leaders, especially those responsible for Afghanistan, who had long advocated for leaving a residual force in Afghanistan past 2016, including a strong contingent of the special operations and intelligence personnel to pursue and press al Qaeda.
Now, those military leaders and some of their intelligence community brethren are warning privately that the rise of ISIS and the growing crises in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa are drawing away counterterrorism resources faster than expected from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The plan to degrade al Qaeda enough so that U.S. forces can leave is already lagging behind schedule. And given what’s happening in Iraq, they argue dismantling U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan no longer looks like a good idea in the first place.
“The CIA assessment [earlier this year] was that whatever risk there may be in the President’s plan can be managed,” said one U.S. official who was briefed on the assessment. “In the next couple of years they can further degrade al Qaeda core to the degree where their capabilities would not require the kind of counterterrorism mission we’ve had there over the past few years.”
But critics worry that the White House plan—and the CIA assessment that underpins it—may be too hopeful.
“The issue is whether... we can manage the risk that the assessment is wrong and that al Qaeda could regenerate its senior leadership,” the official said. “Al Qaeda in Iraq was a destroyed organization when we left there and look where ISIS is now.”
If a similar scenario plays out in Afghanistan, it could leave the America vulnerable and its war gains lost.
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