"We wouldn’t rule out any option," US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said on Tuesday, January 8, referring to a complete withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The statement, the first high-level public acknowledgement that the US is considering a complete pullout, comes at a time when Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington for talks on the future of Afghanistan.
International ISAF troops are set to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014. Since July 2011, Afghan security officials have already begun taking responsibility for their country’s security.
According to current plans, a small number of international soldiers will remain in the country. They are supposed to help train and advise local police and security officials and support the country’s civilian reconstruction.
The US administration, which has the largest troop contingent on the ground, is mulling over its options. There is talk of some 3,000 to 9,000 US soldiers staying on in Afghanistan - compared to the 15,000 soldiers top US commander, General John Allen, had asked for. There are currently some 66,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Working with "the wrong Afghans"
Joachim Spross, who heads the German-Afghan Friendship Society, told DW that the security situation gave rise to concern - as did the most recent debate on a complete withdrawal. "I just don’t understand, considering that the US and Afghanistan agreed on a contract last year," Spross said. According to the agreement, the US would maintain one or two military bases. "I am convinced it would be unwise to withdraw all soldiers."
Spross added that "mistakes" had been made in the selection of local security personnel. For a long time, Spross said, foreign troops had been working with "the wrong Afghans" and had been unable to recruit and promote untainted civilians to top positions.
Rainer Stinner, foreign policy spokesman for the ruling FDP party, is convinced that, despite the unstable political situation, Afghanistan has achieved a lot. He points to more roads and improved access to education and health care.
But Stinner, too, said a complete withdrawal was unthinkable. "Within NATO, we talked about the fact that we have certain responsibilities towards this country. That is why I am convinced that some US troops will remain in Afghanistan post-2014," Stinner told DW.
He added that the most recent debate was not to be taken seriously and that, given the huge material and human "investments," it would be wrong to pull out completely.
Just political wrangling?
Frithjof Schmidt, Afghanistanexpert for the Green Party, isn’t convinced that the White House really wants to withdraw all its troops.
He said the most recent comments made by the US were a reaction to ongoing criticism by the Afghan government. He pointed to accusations of US unilateral military and deployment plans which Afghan officials say undermine their sovereignty.
"I think it’s just a lot of noise to strengthen the American’s hand when it comes to negotiating the conditions for US support for Afghan security officials," he said.
However, Schmidt thinks that US considerations coincide with the strategic shift agreed upon by the international community in 2010, namely away from a military to a political solution, which includes negotiations with insurgent groups. "First they increased the number of troops to show that they were serious about keeping up the pressure for negotiations. Now we’ve entered the final phase, in which the US government is conducting a conceptual discussion, to what extent they want to actively engage following the ISAF mission," Schmidt told DW.
With President Obama’s re-election, the discussion has now entered into its decisive phase, he added.
Lacking logistical capabilities
Schmidt is convinced that the bad security situation in Afghanistan proves the strategic change was the right decision. "It’s high time for a new impulse in the political negotiations with the insurgents."
He said it was crucial that training and advisory missions be strictly separated from the fight against insurgents and that combat troops be completely withdrawn.
Should, against all expectations, Americans completely withdraw their troops next year, the German government would have to revise its plans of maintaining only a reduced number of German soldiers in Afghanistan, Stinner, spokesman for the FDP, said. "In order to ensure a safe environment in Afghanistan, we need capacities that only the Americans have had so far, for example in logistics."
Should the unlikely scenario of a complete withdrawal actually become a reality, Stinner added, "this would have a direct impact on our deployment in Afghanistan."