Fifteen years after 9/11, the US goal of securing Afghanistan and defeating terrorism in the region remains elusive. While the Afghan war is absent from news headlines and presidential debates, the security and political situation in the country is deteriorating and requires immediate attention. As a consequence, the country’s economy, highly dependent on donor funding, is also suffering.
Confident of a battlefield victory – or advantage that can produce substantial political gains – the Taliban has rejected peace negotiations and escalated violence. Insurgents control more territory than any time since the US intervention in 2001, whereas the government has lost control of about two dozen districts this year alone.
Unlike in the past, the Taliban’s offensive is not confined to rural areas as insurgents aim to capture population centers in strategically important provinces. Although the Afghan security forces fight back valiantly, they remain reliant on coalition support, and their casualty rate has lately become unsustainable. Civilian casualties, too, are projected to hit a record high this year as targeted attacks in major cities have become more lethal and frequent.
Despite diplomatic efforts by Washington and Kabul, Pakistan has refused to alter course and continues to harbor and support terrorist groups, with the aim to further destabilize Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s territorial advances have also allowed foreign terrorist groups to return or gain a new foothold in Afghanistan. Capitalizing on the US and NATO troop drawdown in 2014, al Qaeda Core has reestablished training camps in parts of the country; last October, US and Afghan special forces destroyed what has been termed by security officials as “probably the largest” al Qaeda training camp found in Afghanistan over the past 15 years.
After Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb military operation in North Waziristan, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), among others, have returned to the battlefield, and are trying to make Afghanistan their primary area of operation – with dangerous ramifications for security in South and Central Asia.
Recently, an even more alarming development for US national security has been the emergence in Afghanistan of an Islamic State franchise with direct links to its parent organization in Syria and Iraq. However, recent evidence points to TTP as constituting at least 70% to 80% of the ISIS fighters in Ningarhar, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.
Security, however, is not the only concern as serious political tensions brewing in Kabul are threatening to unravel Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political and constitutional order.
A flagging economy accompanied by soaring unemployment are also exerting societal pressures, helping the Taliban’s recruitment efforts and exacerbating a serious braindrain. Over the past two years, Afghans have accounted for the second largest number of refugees reaching Europe.
Moreover, the $10 billion US counternarcotics investment has largely failed, and the booming illicit trade continues to fund the Taliban and promote corruption and instability.
The gravity of the situation, therefore, should naturally position the Afghan war as a top foreign policy issue in the upcoming presidential debates. But it does not seem to be on the radar screen yet, although it is on the minds of the candidates’ advisors with past experience in Afghan policy matters.
Contrary to political calculations, a candid discussion at some level on Afghanistan would help remind the electorate about why the forgotten war remains vitally important for US national security interests, and give the next president the political capital to do what is necessary to pursue a more realistic and sustainable engagement. Once in office, the next president must task an interagency team to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, listen to all relevant and expert sides, and devise a workable strategy for success. Such a strategy must include the following five key components:
1. Commit to long-term and sustainable stability
The next administration must announce an enduring and effective military footprint in Afghanistan and avoid arbitrary withdrawal timelines. In the past years, President Obama’s publicly announced exit plan has had negative consequences: it undercut the military strategy, undermined the training of local forces, diminished the prospect of a peace deal as it convinced the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters that a post-withdrawal military victory was feasible or conducive to a significant geo-political advantage, and led NATO partners to curtail part of their engagement in Afghanistan as well. Any future decision on troop drawdown should be made on the basis of achieving two US core objectives: to defeat terrorism as a threat to Afghan and US interests and to enable the Afghans to secure their country on their own – albeit as part of a long-term partnership. An enduring commitment will also boost the Afghan people’s confidence in their government, limit the flow of refugees to Europe, curb domestic and regional support for the Taliban, and reassure Afghan, NATO allies, and regional powers that the United States is committed to Afghanistan’s stability and will not abandon it the way it did after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. On July 6, President Obama, in light of the growing terrorism threat in the region, announced that he would leave behind 8,400 troops in Afghanistan by the end of his administration, 3,000 more than he had initially planned. The next president, in consultations with military leaders on the ground, must reassess whether that number is adequate to achieve US counterterrorism and stabilization objectives. In addition, the next commander-in-chief should go further than President Obama in relaxing the existing rules of engagement that limit US forces from effectively carrying out their missions in support of the Afghan forces and civilian centers.
2. Assist the Afghan security forces
At the July Warsaw Summit, the US and NATO committed to a “long haul” plan for supporting the Afghan forces with up to $5 billion in annual funding through 2020. This is an encouraging step and the next administration, in partnership with allied forces, should expedite the training and equipping of Afghan forces. A successful exit strategy for the United States ultimately rests on the Afghans’ ability to defend their soil from terrorists on their own.
While the local forces have made remarkable progress in size and quality, they remain reliant on coalition forces for air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other essential enablers.
The buildup of the Afghan Air Force and provision of advanced intelligence and surveillance training and equipment to the Afghan forces must top the agenda. These operational gaps have hampered the Afghan forces’ effectiveness and increased their casualty rate, allowed the Taliban to amass hundreds of militants to ambush cities, and given al Qaeda and ISIS an opportunity to establish bases in the country.
3. Get Tough with Pakistan
Billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan has failed to encourage the country’s military establishment to relinquish its support for terrorist groups that destabilize Afghanistan and kill Americans and Afghans. The next president, in tandem with Congress, should condition any future aid to Pakistan on tangible actions against not just the Haqqani Network but any Taliban sub-groups or affiliates involved in violence. Targeting government and nongovernment individuals and organizations that directly support terrorism should be on the table. And barring Pakistani action, the United States should go after Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan unilaterally, by drone strikes and Special Forces operations.
There are calls for designating Pakistan as a state-sponsor of terrorism, but it is highly unlikely that, given Pakistan’s lobby leverage in Washington, the next US administration would follow suite.
4. Blacklist the Taliban
The Taliban appears to be unwilling to sincerely negotiate peace and remains committed to a military agenda in Afghanistan. Washington and Kabul must refrain from policies that have only served to empower the Taliban, such as releasing their leaders from jail and delisting them from terror lists. Instead, the US and its allies must designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization. But just blacklisting the group would not be sufficient; in addition to their sources of funding in Pakistan, the US Departments of Defense, State and Treasury must act in unison and aggressively to target Taliban’s revenues through narco-trafficking and fundraising from the Gulf region. The passport of Mullah Mansour, the former Taliban leader killed by a drone strike in May, showed that he had traveled to the United Arab Emirates frequently. Labeling the Taliban a terrorist entity would also pressure Pakistan to restrict its support to the group or face real and severe sanctions.
The hope of reaching a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict should not dissuade Washington from exerting military and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban and its regional patrons. If history is any guide, insurgent groups are more willing to make peace when they face a stalemate or military defeat. This month, for example, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e Islami who fought against successive regimes in Kabul over the past four decades, agreed to renounce violence and signed a peace accord with the Afghan government — because his hope of coming to power by force had virtually disappeared. Lessons from peace deals to end decades-long insurgencies in Colombia and Sri Lanka demonstrate a similar pattern.
5. Encourage Reforms
While much of the discussion on Afghanistan focuses on security matters, the fragile political situation in the country poses a more immediate, existential threat to the country’s stability and US national security interests in the region. The US-brokered political agreement that helped end a protracted election crisis two years ago – by helping negotiate the formation of a government of national unity – is on the brink of collapse. The accord stipulates that by the end of September 2016, the government must implement electoral reforms, issue new electronic national identification cards, hold parliamentary and district council elections, and convene a Loya Jirga to amend the constitution and agree to create a prime minister’s post. Since none of those provisions have materialized, fissures within the government are widening and opposition groups, including former President Hamid Karzai, are questioning the government’s legitimacy and jockeying for power. It is, therefore, imperative for Washington to use its leverage to pressure Afghan leaders to act in unison to implement electoral reforms, improve governance and curb corruption. A continuation of political bickering between national unity government leaders would undermine US stabilization and state-building efforts, divide the Afghan security forces along ethnic and factional lines, and empower the Taliban and other terrorist and criminal networks.
While the challenges are enormous and real, success in Afghanistan is both possible and essential.
The United States and its allies have had notable achievements in Afghanistan. Since September 11, 2001, no direct terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan has occurred on the US soil, and the US military and intelligence assets in Afghanistan have been instrumental in degrading al Qaeda and killing its top leaders.
The US engagement has also benefited the Afghans immensely: