The risky retreat in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Ash Carter listens last week as President Barack Obama makes a statement on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Last week, President Barack Obama, after saying Afghanistan’s security remains precarious and the Taliban “remain a threat” to the government of Afghanistan, announced a further reduction in U.S. forces there. But they still have to train Afghan soldiers, provide air support and carry out special counter-terror raids.

In other words, their jobs just got tougher.

President Obama said the current ceiling on U.S. forces in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops will be reduced for the remainder of his term of office to 8,400, a cut of 14 percent.

True, the decision overrides an earlier edict by the president that forces would be reduced even further, to 5,500, by the end of the year — and removed altogether by the end of his term on Jan. 20.

But reports reflecting the realities in Afghanistan imply that the new U.S. commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., has successfully argued that a longer-term U.S. commitment will be required.

The general has asked for at least a continuation of the 9,800 troop allowance — and might have asked for more. America’s NATO allies also supply a few thousand additional troops.

In theory, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are limited to three roles: They oversee training of Afghan army personnel, advise Afghan generals on plans and strategy, and conduct limited numbers of counter-terrorist raids.

But those forces are also deployed by the hundreds in combat roles to strengthen Afghan forces under attack in areas largely controlled by the Taliban, as reported by The New York Times.

The Times has also reported that the Afghan army, backed by U.S. troops, recently overran a huge training area controlled by al-Qaida, which along with the Islamic State has a continuing presence in Afghanistan.

Reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will necessarily limit the ability of the U.S. and NATO commands to give the Afghan army help when it is hard pressed — and to go after terrorist groups.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said last week that on his recent trip to U.S. headquarters in Kabul he heard no one argue for cutting U.S. forces.

He warned: “This troop reduction, while it will seem small to many, will have a negative impact on the security situation in Afghanistan. It also pushes American service members to absorb more risk as the threats in Afghanistan from ISIL and other terrorist groups continue to grow.”

Sen. Graham added: “Unfortunately, all President Obama did today was make the job of our remaining troops serving in Afghanistan, and the next president, much harder and riskier.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., was even more critical: “When the president himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as ‘precarious,’ it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 U.S. troops by the end of the year.”

And it’s difficult to defeat any enemy that knows you lack the necessary strength of numbers — and resolve.