The war in Afghanistan has now dragged on for over thirteen years, making it the longest war in American history. While the United States has been reducing its presence in the country, President Obama recently ordered a revision to his plan of withdrawal from Afghanistan by increasing the role that American troops will play in Afghanistan starting in 2015 to include combat operations. This decision comes at a time when many politicians and experts have been questioning the president’s plan to end the war by 2016, with some even advocating that troops continue fighting past that date.
One question looms large against this backdrop: By increasing operations or staying longer, will the United States accomplish anything significant? Over the years, the American and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military presence has not eliminated the Taliban, and the US will most likely not be able to do so through further military engagement. Furthermore, if the US chooses to cut down on its military activities and presence, there are alternative options for improving Afghanistan. Indeed, the US could more effectively stabilize Afghanistan by providing conditional monetary aid and by encouraging regional powers, like India and Pakistan, to assume larger roles in assisting the Afghan military with training, equipment, and intelligence.
A Troubling Situation
The changes made by the president do not affect the timeline of American withdrawal, but rather, the extent of their involvement. As of October 2014, 34,500 ISAF troops remained in Afghanistan, of which 24,000 were Americans. The drawdown plan calls for only 12,500 ISAF troops, including 9,800 Americans, to remain in the country by the beginning of 2015. The US has been adhering to this schedule. For example, the marines and the army’s Tenth Mountain Division both recently withdrew from Afghanistan.
Before the recent change in US policy, it was planned that the troops remaining in 2015 would primarily advise and train Afghan forces and infrequently conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda, before fully withdrawing by 2016. However, in late November, the New York Times reported that President Obama had signed an order allowing US forces to take part in combat operations against the Taliban through 2015. The changes also allow the US military to use jets, bombers, and drones and conduct airstrikes to support Afghan forces. The new plan does not change the fact that Afghanistan is supposed to assume full control of the war in 2015 and that all American forces will leave at the end of that year. Though the new orders are a surprise to many due to Obama’s otherwise firm attitude on ending the war, they do not go far enough for some security experts who feel uneasy about America’s departure and want the withdrawal schedule to be modified even further.
The most serious argument for sustained US involvement in Afghanistan posits that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are not capable of maintaining control of the entirety of Afghanistan and that the post-US security vacuum will allow for a resurgence of the Taliban. Proponents of this argument point to casualty totals in the past year as evidence of a deteriorating security environment. The Afghan army suffered an “unprecedented scale of casualties” in 2014, causing force attrition that General John Campbell, the commander of ISAF, described as “not sustainable.” This statistic, however, is likely a result of the fact that the Afghan army assumed a larger role in offensive operations against the Taliban during the same time period. In other words, the casualty rate may be more of a reflection of the increased role played by the ANSF than of the Taliban's strength. Currently, the Taliban is estimated to have sixty thousand members, while the ANSF has about 352,000, if both police and military are counted. While the Taliban has managed to continue the conflict despite numerical disadvantage, it would require something rather extraordinary for it to defeat and replace the established governing institutions of the country. The ANSF is becoming stronger over time, and raw personnel numbers suggest that it is becoming less and less likely that the Taliban could come back into power. Campbell himself has expressed confidence in the ANSF’s ability to take on the Taliban, saying that Taliban “victories” are often exaggerated by the group to make it appear more powerful than it actually is.
As discussion of troop withdrawal moves to the forefront, many policymakers are looking too much at post-withdrawal Iraq as a cautionary tale. Some argue that ending US involvement in Afghanistan would set the country down a path like that of Iraq, where ISIS has emerged as a destructive and destabilizing force in large swaths of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India recently cautioned the US against a hasty withdrawal, asking that the military “not repeat the mistake that you did in Iraq.” Connecting Afghanistan to Iraq, however, is not entirely reasonable, since the two wars followed very different paths, occurred in dissimilar societies, and had distinctly different objectives. The Iraq War had more to do with regime change and was much more costly in terms of military and civilian deaths. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the unique set of circumstances in Iraq and its neighboring countries that contributed to the rise of ISIS do not exist in Afghanistan.
The past decade has shown that the US cannot and should not play the role of the world’s policeman. Unfortunately, the world is full of conflicts, and selectively choosing to intervene with a full-scale war in some, but giving not more than a verbal condemnation in others, opens the door to accusations of hypocrisy from the international community. Military intervention from the West during a crisis should be one of the last options, after diplomacy, economic tactics, and intervention by regional powers. Military force, especially from the outside, cannot necessarily change a country’s society, and when dealing with terrorism, it can actually exacerbate the problem. Occupations provide an easy way for an extremist group to garner wide levels of popular support, as anything that goes wrong can be blamed on the occupier, even if it has good intentions. This effect is amplified by the bad reputation and baggage that the US carries, of supposedly being an imperialist, anti-Muslim force. Furthermore, when a government relies on foreign troops for security, it appears weak and illegitimate to its own citizens; transferring Afghanistan’s security into its government’s own hands will be beneficial for its legitimacy. These factors make it even more reasonable to assert that prolonging the presence of the American military, or increasing its operations, will likely cause more violence in the long run, even if short-term fighting intensifies after the American withdrawal.
The monetary cost of war is also important. Besides training thousands of Afghan soldiers, the United States has provided their military with equipment worth more than $600 million. Overall, America has spent $104 billion on the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001, and even after the withdrawal in 2016, Congress expects to continue giving between $5 billion and $8 billion per year to the Afghan government. The US has spent billions of dollars and lost over 2,300 of its soldiers in this war, and not only has the Taliban not been eliminated, but over fourteen thousand Afghan troops and twenty thousand civilians have been killed. This is unsatisfactory, and it illustrates how military intervention has not been successful in wiping out terrorism. Considering Obama’s new order, it would not be surprising to see the costs of war rise next year, in both dollars and casualties. Regardless of whether or not the war had a justified beginning, the amount of money and number of lives that have been lost are so high that it is best to end it as soon as possible.
Alternative Solutions for Stability
Support from regional powers is key to solving Afghanistan’s problems, but it is noteworthy that none of Afghanistan’s neighbors participated in the international coalition that invaded Afghanistan. These countries have been benefiting from the West’s efforts to contain threats and promote stability in the region without contributing nearly as much. For example, the US faces much less of a threat from the Taliban than India and Pakistan do, but it has ended up bearing the brunt of a costly war, while India and Pakistan did not even participate in the military enterprise. Now, the two South Asian powers are concerned about their security and fear that without the US in Afghanistan, the Taliban could spread and destabilize the region. Leaders from both nations have expressed their desire for the US to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016. America cannot remain there indefinitely, though, so regional powers will need to play a larger role in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Pakistan and India have large, sophisticated militaries, and either could realistically rise to address this challenge.
Last month, Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif visited Afghanistan to offer training courses, facilities, and equipment to the Afghan military. Ashraf Ghani, the recently elected president of Afghanistan, returned the favor with a trip to Pakistan, during which he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. These friendly encounters suggest that the two countries are trying to re-establish close ties, which had been strained during Hamid Karzai’s presidency. Pakistan has important security concerns that warrant a larger role in Afghanistan, as many Taliban militants active in Pakistan flee across the border into Afghanistan and re-enter later without being noticed. At the same time, Pakistan has had a “selective approach to targeting terrorists,” which is harmful for its own security and its relationships with India and Afghanistan. A bilateral agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan to share intelligence, keep the border secure, and train Afghan troops would be a positive development for South Asia. India, on the other hand, has already trained several hundred Afghan troops and may soon send military advisers to Afghanistan. Ideally, India and Pakistan can form a partnership with each other to collaborate on the issue of Afghanistan and use their combined resources most efficiently, since it is in both nations’ best interest.
American involvement in Afghanistan will not end when American troops fully withdraw from the country in 2016. Rather, monetary aid will still be sent to the Afghan government with the hope of strengthening Afghanistan against the Taliban. Aid will be ineffective, though, if the US does not set conditions on it. The Afghan government should have to meet certain standards in order to receive the aid, or should have to use it in specific ways. It will be more difficult to verify that these conditions are met once the US no longer has a military presence in Afghanistan, but aid can be effectively managed with clear, detailed planning and a commitment to only fund projects that can be monitored. Spending money this way instead of on war would improve America’s image in the world and contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, instead of to further destruction.
President Obama’s decision to increase the American military’s role in Afghanistan next year is problematic and dangerous. If the US stays heavily involved, not only will more troops be killed and money be spent, but Afghan civilians will be at greater risk. The worst case scenario can be avoided if the US acts very carefully going forward. In the coming year, the US should stay committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2016 but not waste the remaining time there by entangling itself militarily or by failing to focus on building a stable future. The year or so that American troops have left in Afghanistan should be used prudently, with a strong focus on training the ANSF and developing their capabilities in whatever aspect requires the most attention, rather than the continuation of combat operations, so that the Afghan military will be effective on its own. A transition into conditional aid from the US, combined with close military cooperation with India and Pakistan, may be the key to achieving security in Afghanistan and South Asia while simultaneously allowing the United States to end its war there.