Interview: Thomas Gouttierre on Early U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Afghan men walk past by U.S. soldiers in Ghazni province on February 2, 2012. (Aref Yaqubi/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan men walk past by U.S. soldiers in Ghazni province on February 2, 2012. (Aref Yaqubi/AFP/Getty Images)

On February 1, 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta surprised NATO allies by announcing that U.S. combat troops would leave Afghanistan at least a year earlier than a previously planned schedule. Thomas Gouttierre, Director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and Asia Society Associate Fellow, says the troop withdrawal could be a good thing if Afghanistan’s government and the international community can work to create jobs that are not dependent on the military.

What was your reaction to the U.S. likely ending its combat mission in Afghanistan in mid-to-late 2013 instead of a previous plan of late 2014?

The critical part of the drawdown is that it be done in such a way that it is not an earthquake to Afghanistan’s economy and society but an evolutionary process. We need to ensure that the already critical job situation, which has become dependent upon these inflationary industries of our military and our international assistance programming, doesn’t put everybody in Kabul and the population centers out of work. The economy is the bigger challenge to me than the long-term reduction of forces and must be managed effectively.

Thomas Gouttierre
Thomas Gouttierre

What can be done to help create jobs for Afghan people?

There are many public works projects that can help bring back Afghanistan’s sustainability. The country has enough hydroelectric potential that it should be exporting hydroelectric power, but right now it is importing it from Uzbekistan. It used to be a fruit and nut exporter and now it’s an importer. There are roads that need to be repaired and a whole host of other infrastructural projects. These projects cost money, but take far fewer dollars than the amount of money that has been spent on the military need. We have been working on these development activities and had some success, but we can do more.

Will the country remain secure after the troops leave?

I think the Afghans will step up the closer we get to these target dates and I think the military support strategies that we are seeking to institute and implement will be critical to that success. That’s been our experience in places like Western Europe after World War II and South Korea after the Korean War, where strategic presence and strategic assistance helped sustain the progress and stability of those countries. I think Afghanistan is more hospitable to that sustainability than the Iraqis, who saw us as an occupying army. I don’t think the Afghans feel that way at all. They know they’d be living in hell right now if the U.S. had not come in at the end of 2001.

Will a drawdown in security forces lead to an uptick in fundamental extremism?

War creates a movement toward extremism — that’s the way it goes. I don’t see this obsession or affinity in fundamentalism in the young, dynamic, urban-based Afghans that constitute such a large percentage of the population. The thing that I remember most about Afghans and their approach to religion when I lived there was that though it was conservative in many parts of the country — not unlike the bible-belt adherence to religion in our country — it was very practical. Afghans didn’t really let extremism and religion get in the way of their lives. I think over time that will ultimately be the movement should there be reasonable stability and security in the country.

What will be the country’s biggest challenge once U.S. troops leave?

Afghanistan is in need of the very same thing that we are in the U.S.: jobs. If they are able to work they’re not going to be seeking employment and therefore the means for the survival of their families through the illegal drug industry, local and regional warlords, or militias. People get involved with these types of things because they need to survive. The Afghans are courageous in confronting challenges and still marching forward. Among the most courageous members of the society are the women, who continue teaching and going to school and working in the face of all these challenges.

About the Author

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Alex Ortolani is Asia Society’s Senior Media and Content Officer.