Afghanistan’s Future Imperiled
The list of foreign and defense policy errors over the past eight years is lengthy and serious. None was so clearly evident as the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a move which destabilized a nation on a slow path to stability, and allowed ISIS to grow into an international danger.
A similar situation is arising in Afghanistan. While U.S. participation there has been lengthy and costly, a similar, total withdrawal of western forces could produce results as consequential as that which occurred in Iraq.
In May of 2014, President Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Providing advanced notice of a departure date was correctly seen as a major diplomatic and military blunder on the part of the White House.
While the Obama Administration stated that it supports the current government in Kabul, the fact that it opened talks with the Taliban in 2011 reduced credibility for that position. Several years ago, The BBC reported that the Taliban had cut off the fingers of at least eleven Afghans who participated in that nations’ presidential run-off election. The terrorists did not want the voters to participate in that exercise in democracy.
In addition to the legal issues surrounding the White House’s decision to negotiate, very significant moral questions abound, as well as matters of diplomatic precedent. Washington had, in the past, held to a wise policy of not negotiating with terrorists. To do so invited more acts of terror by groups and individuals who see those acts as a path to extorting demands from governments. The Obama Administration abandoned the precedent of not negotiating with terrorists, and did so without consulting Congress, or with much discussion with the American public.
y elevating the Taliban to the status of a negotiating partner, it gave that terrorist organization a very substantial boost in its bid to return to power after America withdraws. Insurgent bombings rose as U.S. troops reduced operations. In July 2016, Obama modified his withdrawal stance, and decided to keep 8,400 U.S. service members in country through the end of his term.
Now, President Trump faces the difficult decision of whether to continue the withdrawal, or to take a different strategy of “surging” forces in an attempt to substantially defeat the Taliban and prevent their takeover after western forces withdraw.
In a Washington Post article, former CIA Director and CENTCOM commander David Petraeus, who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, along with co-author Mike O’Hanlon, criticized the end of 2016 deadline established by Obama, noting
Unfortunately, having displayed such patience, the president [assumed] that neither his successor nor the American public has the desire – or stomach – to continue even a modest U.S. effort in Afghanistan after 2016… This …raises considerable questions… We can schedule an end to our role in that nation’s conflict, but we cannot schedule an end to the war there or an end to the threat from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or other extremist elements of the global jihad. Moreover, the Afghan political leadership and public overwhelmingly want us to stay.
According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, “Afghanistan needs a stable security environment to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other terrorists. More than half of all U.S. reconstruction dollars since 2002 have gone toward building, equipping, training, and sustaining the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). However, the ANDSF has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency. As of August 28, 2016, USFOR-A reported that only 63.4% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence, a reduction from the 72% percent as of November 27, 2015. Capability gaps in key areas such as intelligence, aviation, and logistics are improving, but still hinder effectiveness.
Effectively diminishing the Taliban’s power would necessarily raise the difficult issue of pursuing it to its safe havens in Pakistan. According to the Pentagon in its latest Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan Report, “The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dominated by a resilient insurgency; but the Afghan government remains in control of all major population centers and key lines of communication, and the ANDSF continues to deny the Taliban strategic ground throughout the country. Although the Taliban maintained a higher-than-usual operational tempo over the winter, overall levels of violence this reporting period were consistent with historical trends of a seasonal decrease in violence over the winter months and an uptick leading into the traditional spring and summer fighting season. Over the last six months, both ANDSF and insurgent casualties have increased, continuing their upward trend from the previous reporting period. Increased insurgent fighting in urban areas has also contributed to record-high civilian casualties, primarily caused by insurgent and extremist groups…
Although al Qaeda’s core leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region has been degraded, elements continue to seek safe haven on both sides of the border to regenerate and conduct attack planning. The continued development of an al Qaeda affiliate in the region, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), highlights the dynamic nature of the terrorist and militant landscape in the region, posing risks to the mission and to U.S. interests…Pakistan must play a role in reducing the threat from terrorist and militant groups in the region. Consistent mid-level military-to-military dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan on specific issues, such as the shared threat from IS-K, and occasional discussions at higher levels of the military and government early in the reporting period were encouraging. However, sustained Pakistani efforts to pressure the Haqqani Network and the Taliban and to disrupt active threat streams are necessary to help decrease violence in the region, to reduce the threat posed by these groups, and to achieve lasting progress on counterterrorism issues.
Continuing the fight against the Taliban does not necessarily entail nation building, a policy President Trump does not favor. It would involve direct military action aimed at destroying the Taliban, or at least reducing its power and influence to the point where the Kabul government can defend itself and expand its control over the entire country.
Originally published on the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.