U.S., Afghan officials negotiating terms of Bilateral Security Agreement
Afghanistan could witness a resurgence of al Qaeda comparable to the group’s current restoration in Iraq without a residual U.S. and NATO-led force in the country after 2014, experts said Tuesday.
U.S. and Afghan officials are still negotiating the terms of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would permit a smaller post-2014 force in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and conduct counterterrorism operations. A national tribal council, or loya jirga, is expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the BSA, which would take effect after the full withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.
A similar proposal collapsed in Iraq in 2011 due to an electoral impasse and backdoor negotiations between Iranian officials and the current Iraqi government. Al Qaeda linked fighters have since regained a foothold in western Iraq, leading to the most deaths in the country in five years.
Frederick Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, said al Qaeda is now conducting car bomb operations in Iraq at the same level it was in 2007—before a surge by U.S. troops precipitated a retreat by insurgents.
"If we pull out of Afghanistan, the consequences may or may not ensue as rapidly, but they will ensue very much along those lines," he said, referring to the current state of violence in Iraq. "The Afghan security forces were not created in a way that they could continue to operate without support."
The New York Times reported Sunday that NATO officials are considering a smaller post-2014 force than originally proposed of about to 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American. Officials largely expressed concern about having an adequate number of troops to administer about $4 billion in annual aid to the ANSF and prevent corruption.
However, Kagan said too small of a force could jeopardize joint missions with the ANSF that are beginning to bear fruit. The drug trade still accounts for more than $100 million in illicit commerce, and terror groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network retain bases of operations in neighboring Pakistan.
"When you get down below 10,000, a lot of missions fall off," Kagan said. "We will not be doing counternarcotics. We will not be doing counterinsurgency."
In response to a question from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), Kagan noted that the complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces would result in another strategic boost for al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda currently has more territory and fighters than at any point in its history, punctuated by the ten of thousands of affiliated fighters that have occupied large swaths of northern and eastern Syria since the outbreak of that country’s civil war.
"It will be an enormous boon to the morale of the Taliban and it will be an incredible boon to al Qaeda," Kagan said, referring to the prospect of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops known as the "zero option."
"They are poised to claim credit for beating a second superpower [after the Soviet Union in the 1980s] and reclaim the land on which their movement was founded," he said.
Some lawmakers on the committee questioned whether the security benefits of even a small residual force justified the expense.
"At some point we have to balance whether that $3 billion a year in Afghanistan is more important than spending that $3 billion here in America," said Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.).
Kinzinger responded that preventing another al Qaeda comeback is well worth the proposed funding, which is minimal compared to other spending items.
"The $3 billion we’re talking about is one one-hundredth of what we spend in interest on our debt every year, which has exploded in the last five years," he said.
He added that U.S. negotiators should not allow troop number disputes to result in the eventual demise of the BSA.
"I would hate for the history in 20 years to be that America lost the war in Afghanistan over the difference of 10,000 troops," he said.