- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2015

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will visit the White House on Tuesday to make the case for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but analysts say President Obama is unlikely to budge on ending U.S. involvement in 2016.

There are currently about 10,000 U.S. service members deployed to Afghanistan. Nora Bensahel, a scholar at American University, said she expected the president to agree to keep the presence at its current level past December, when the U.S. force was supposed to shrink to 5,500 service members.

But Mr. Ghani has also expressed a need for troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2016 — a line Mr. Obama likely won’t want to cross, Ms. Bensahel said.

“I think that will be a very difficult political decision for him,” she said. “He made very clear throughout his presidency that he wants to be president who ends both long wars during his term.”

Jeff Eggers, senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the National Security Council, told reporters last week that President Obama will make a statement on Afghanistan troop levels Tuesday after speaking with Mr. Ghani, but that “no decisions have been made yet.”

Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security, said the president deciding to withdraw troops based on a calender date that coincides with the end of his presidency rather than an assessment of conditions on the ground inherently has some risk.

“At the end of the day, the president will have to deicide whether to stick with the timeline and absorb the elevated level of risk and hand it off to the next president or not,” he said.

The deterioration of hard-won security in Iraq when the administration didn’t leave a residual American presence may influence the drawdown in Afghanistan, Mr. Fontaine said.

The security situation in the Middle East may also force the president to rethink his drawdown strategy. While violence in Tunisia and Yemen is not directly spilling into Afghanistan, Ms. Bensahel said the broader unrest in the Middle East could effect the administration’s timeline.

“I think there’s concern about the path the region will take in the future and not wanting to add to that instability by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan before security forces are really ready,” she said.

James Dobbins, a senior chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation, said he expected Mr. Ghani to make the case that, because of widespread unrest throughout the region, the Islamic State could move into Afghanistan and attract foreign fighters, becoming a “more extremist version of the Taliban.”

Mr. Ghani thanked U.S. troops Monday for their service in Afghanistan and said they have left a legacy of a country that can defend itself against terrorism.

“So what’s the legacy? The legacy is now a proud Afghan security forces that has dealt with the best of you and emulates the best of your example,” Mr. Ghani said at the Pentagon. “The special forces who worked shoulder to shoulder with you are now carrying the mission.”

Ms. Bensahel said that pulling out American forces could make Congress less likely to appropriate the foreign aid that currently funds the Afghan security forces. The country collects about $2 billion in revenue a year, and the security forces alone cost about $4 billion a year. If that money is cut off, the security forces will likely collapse and be unable to maintain stability, she said.

“If the government can’t pay security forces, they’re not going to exist as capable forces much longer,” she said.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that while the U.S. and other international partners will continue to help in the fight, Mr. Ghani has made it clear that “Afghanistan’s future is ultimately for Afghans to grab hold of and for Afghans to decide.”

Mr. Ghani arrived in Washington on Sunday. After the remarks Monday morning, the Afghan leader spent the rest of the day at Camp David with Mr. Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Mr. Ghani will visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday before going to New York City on Thursday for meetings at the United Nations.

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