In the advance to President Obama’s Afghan speech, one of the worst fears of observers was that a drawdown of American troops would open the door for other NATO members to withdraw troops as well. As my colleague Gary Schmitt wrote:
Given how little support there is among most of our allies’ populations for being in Afghanistan, it will be impossible for them to not react with deep reductions of their own—multiplying the problem of having too few (or, at best, just enough) troops in theater.
These fears were well-grounded. Although Germany has been more circumspect regarding any troop reductions in Afghanistan since Obama’s address, France responded immediately with cuts of its own. France will reduce its 4,000-troop contingent along the same timeline- and in the same proportions- as the United States. And, now it appears that the United Kingdom may accelerate its withdrawal from Afghanistan, bringing home an additional 500 troops (beyond the promised 426 by the end of 2012). If Germany and other nations follow suit, more strains will be placed on an already overstretched ISAF.
The arrangement of ISAF, with national forces deployed in quantity to specific areas, gives drawdowns a local complexion. British troops, for example, are found principally in Helmand Province, the site of some of the hardest fighting during the Afghan War. Helmand has benefited from an increased troop presence and a sustained campaign to defeat the Taliban. Still, while the fate of Helmand is far from determined, the effect of the British drawdown will be mitigated by the significant American (and, to a lesser degree, Danish and Georgian) presence in the province.
Meanwhile, French troops operate principally in two areas: Kapisa Province and the Surobi district of Kabul Province. Kapisa, adjacent to Kabul, has been important in establishing the security of the Afghan capital, and was a recipient of additional troops in the early 2009 surge after a period of unrest. Surobi, situated along the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad, has long been considered a vital geopolitical cog.
It appears now that the French will meet their drawdown numbers by removing troops from Surobi (Kapisa is more contested and has seen a number of ISAF casualties this year). But even Surobi has not always been as tranquil as it is today. In one of the more infamous incidents of the war, French paratroopers were ambushed after replacing Italian troops who had “pacified” the area through bribes to local militants—and who had failed to inform the French of this practice. The August 2008 ambush was followed by a campaign to secure the area, reaching a tenuous local peace. It may well be that Afghan security forces are now able to take over for the French in Surobi, but it is an uncertain proposition in a strategic district.
As problematic as British and French troop reductions may be, a drawdown of the German contribution would be riskier still. Germany, charged with overseeing Regional Command North from Mazar-e Sharif, has witnessed a spate of violence and upheaval since 2008. Although the lifting of Bundeswehr restrictions on engagement and a bolstered American presence in the region have succeeded in shifting momentum in ISAF’s favor, the situation remains uneasy and undecided. Should Germany follow France’s (and by extension America’s) lead in reducing its presence, these gains would be jeopardized.
Last Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen characterized President Obama’s drawdown as undertaking an “acceptable level of risk.” But beyond the risk of withdrawing American troops lies the prospect for a more dramatic and widespread drawdown across ISAF. In this way, the future of the Afghan War may rest with the chancelleries of Europe.