Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on Sunday called for the Obama administration to accelerate the pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Gillibrand also asked the administration to broaden future peace talks to include not only the Taliban but also women and other civic groups.
Policy analysts who study Afghanistan took issue with Gillibrand’s recommendations.
Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlined her position in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and also appeared at her New York City office along with veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She advocated the United States focus on its fight against Al Qaeda's multi-national terror networks and called Afghan President Hamid Karzai an “unreliable partner.”
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has recently become more tense, following a recent shooting rampage blamed on an Army sergeant as well as the mistaken burning of Korans by U.S. troops last month and the subsequent deaths of 6 U.S. troops.
Sen. Gillibrand argued that the U.S. could put its military resources to better use targeting broader terrorist threats, like those posed by countries including Yemen and Somalia. Branches of Al Qaeda there have been able to plot attacks against the U.S. like the failed 2009 Christmas bombing and the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt.
“When we ask about the top national security threats to the U.S., our defense officials point to Iran, China, cyber-security and not Afghanistan,” said Gillibrand. She cited U.S. success in wagering a counter-terrorism strategy in targeted missions like the one in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Gillibrand stopped short of proposing specific new timeframes, saying that military leaders should make withdrawal decisions based on the safety and security of the troops.
She added, “my goal is to get them home and to the extent that we have any ongoing operations, they should be highly targeted with minimal forces.”
Currently, approximately 90,000 U.S. troops are deployed to Afghanistan, approximately 3,500 of them from New York State. The Obama administration’s policy would bring that number down to approximately 68,000 by the end of September with a goal of full withdrawl by 2014, and possibly even 2013.
That pace was endorsed by Marine General John Allen, who testified before Congress last week saying that the mission in Afghanistan was “on track.”
And Gillibrand’s recommendation got little support from policy analysts who study Afghanistan.
“We’re basically moving as fast as feasibly possible,” said Fotini Christia, an Afghanistan analyst and assistant professor of political science at MIT. Christia’s conducted more than five years of research on the impact of development aid in Afghanistan, including field research. She argued bringing 90,000 troops back requires making sure those who are left behind are equipped to take over, “not in the sense of creating a western style democracy but of preventing an all out civil war in the place.”
Christia also rejected the idea of bringing women into the negotiating process. She said that request could only be made by someone who does not understand what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan or how Afghans function. She said the U.S. has given false hope to women in Afghanistan.
“These are promises that we can’t deliver on while we are there. Imagine what it’s going to look like when we withdraw,” said Chistia.
Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that to the extent the Obama administration has set its policy for troop withdrawal, Gillibrand’s recommendations are not realistic. But Tankel said that the substance of the recommendations – whether troop withdrawal could or should be done – is something that is being actively debated across the policy, academic and think tank communities.
“There are those that argue that the U.S. will be no closer to accomplishing it’s objectives two years from now, and that if it’s not going to be staying indefinitely that it should be coming home,” said Tankel adding, “And there are others who argue that beyond killing Al Qaeda, stabilizing Afghanistan is going to require a phased withdrawal to avoid creating a power vacuum too quickly in terms of either forces on the ground or pulling out not just people but a whole lot of the money that’s been going into that country.”