Yesterday’s announcement that the U.S. will keep troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end later this year settles one ongoing question about the drawdown of U.S. troops from the former Al Qaeda safe-haven: Barring a major rift between the Afghan and U.S. governments, the Obama administration won’t be opting for the “zero option.” There will be some U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond the announced late-2014 pullout date.
According to President Obama’s speech yesterday, the U.S.’s military presence will be contained within Kabul and Bagram Airfiled by the end of 2015. According to Doug Ollivant, a fellow at the New America Foundation, retired Army officer and former Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, this means that the U.S. will likely maintain its presence in Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, for another year before the full pullback to Kabul.
But Obama’s pullout plan calls into question the future of two other crucial bases in Eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.
The airfields at Khost and Jalalabad are CIA-administered facilities. Khost is better known as Forward Operating Base Chapman and was “heavily involved in the selection of al-Qaeda and Taliban targets for drone aircraft strikes,” according to a 2010 Washington Post report. In 2009, the New York Times reported that drones were leaving Jalalabad for missions in Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan on almost a daily basis.
There have been recent hints that the military’s Afghanistan pullback might include the repositioning of CIA assets, including armed drones. Earlier this month, David S. Cloud of the Los Angeles Times reported that the CIA was already planning for a future in which its access to the restive Afghan-Pakistan border region was curtailed:
[CIA Director] Brennan told military officials that the CIA would be able to continue gathering intelligence and targeting militants even after pulling back to Kabul and the nearby Bagram air base, one official said.
The spy service already has sharply cut the pace of lethal drone strikes in Pakistan, flown from airfields in Afghanistan. One official said the agency was making plans to continue operating the armed drones on a much smaller scale, from Bagram.
That same week, the Daily Beast reported that the CIA is already dismantling its “frontline Afghan counterterrorist forces,” or its proxy militias in eastern Afghanistan — by all accounts, the Agency is drawing down its presence in expectation of the military’s pullback to Kabul.
Around 5,000 troops will eventually be based in the Afghan capital, in anticipation of a complete drawdown by the end of 2016. As Ollivant notes, the remaining U.S. presence prior to the end of 2016 will likely include Special Operations Forces capable of going after remaining Al Qaeda targets — troops that require a large number of support staff.
“Fifty shooters,” he told Business Insider, “would be supported by 100 intelligence staff. You need a generic support element, and the aviation element to fly them. You need to have a pretty robust hospital. You need a communication element. By the time you add everything up you’re talking about at least 1,000 people.”
If Khost and Jalalabad close, U.S. assets would be pushed even further from targets near the Pakistani border — Jalalabad, for instance, is fifty miles east of Kabul.
Ollivant finds it unlikely that those bases will be able to operate as they have been without a robust conventional U.S. military presence to support them.
“It’s awfully dispersed,” Ollivant says of U.S. bases in Eastern Afghanistan. “If you’re in Khost and you get in a bad way it’s a long long time to even fly somebody there from Kabul … they’re not going to be able to do business the way they have been doing it.”
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