Now that U.S. elections are over, the Obama administration will have to decide its future course on Afghanistan. During the campaign, President Obama declared a goal of bringing American troops home from the Afghan war and focusing instead on “nation building” here in the U.S. But such campaign slogans pose a false choice to the American people and ignore the likely perilous consequences of the U.S. turning its back on a pivotal country.
It is true that the administration will need to bear down on domestic issues like getting the U.S. fiscal house in order, attacking unemployment, and improving the nation’s energy security. At the same time, U.S. leaders must stay focused on guarding the nation against the scourge of terrorism. Doing so involves continued U.S. engagement in countries where al-Qaeda and affiliated groups maintain local support and the potential to revive and rebuild their networks – namely Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The past year’s developments in Afghanistan have been demoralizing. A sharp increase in Afghan security force insider attacks on their trainers, leading to over 60 coalition deaths, as well as nation-wide rioting by Afghans after discovering U.S. military officials inadvertently burned Korans and a U.S. staff sergeant’s horrifying massacre of 16 Afghan civilians have all understandably led Americans to doubt the mission and call for speedier troop withdrawals.
Yet a longer-term view of the situation recognizes that there have been solid gains in Afghanistan over the last 11 years. According to a Department of Defense report from April, joint Afghan-coalition military operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the Afghan people in several key population centers, limiting insurgents’ freedom of movement, disrupting their safe havens inside Afghanistan, and degrading their leadership.
President Obama’s 30,000-strong troop surge in 2010-2011 succeeded in pushing back the Taliban in their traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan and prevented the insurgents from launching a major offensive during the 2012 fighting season. Afghan security forces have steadily expanded their control over larger portions of the country with nearly 50 percent of Afghans now living in areas where the Afghan security forces are in charge.
U.S. and NATO military presence helped provide space for average Afghans to begin to shape the future of the country. The foundations for democracy have been laid and the next Afghan presidential election, scheduled for April 2014, will be a crucial test of the durability of these emerging democratic institutions.
Social and economic indicators also are far better than they were a decade ago. There is increased access to health care and education. Almost 82 percent of Afghans now have access to basic healthcare and nearly seven million Afghan children attend school, compared to only one million during Taliban rule. Afghan girls and women, who under Taliban rule were unable to attend school, hold jobs, or even access health care, now serve as parliamentarians, work for non-governmental organizations, and receive primary and secondary educations in ever increasing numbers.
There is tremendous anxiety among Afghans about the prospects for the country once international combat forces depart, especially if the pull-out is hasty and not calibrated to conditions on the ground. There are doubts about the Afghan government’s ability to repel the Taliban and to prevent them from returning to power in large swathes of the country, particularly in the south. Pronounced ethnic divisions also contribute to the sense that civil war may be inevitable after coalition forces leave. Just last week a powerful warlord from Herat Province, Ismael Khan, called on forces loyal to him to form a militia to be ready to counter the Taliban.
Need for Enduring U.S. Engagement
The U.S. must ensure the investments it has made in Afghanistan over the last decade are not wasted. Even as the U.S. withdraws combat forces by the end of 2014, it must signal to the Afghans that it will remain economically, diplomatically, and to some degree, militarily, involved with the country long after 2014.
Despite the setbacks over the last ten months, the administration must avoid the temptation to hasten U.S. troop withdrawals and instead continue the drawdown at a responsible pace. U.S. and NATO Commander General John Allen made clear earlier this year that he wanted to keep the bulk of the 68,000 troops now in Afghanistan in place until the end of the 2013 fighting season a year from now. Racing for the exits would only create chaos in the country and redound to the insurgents’ benefit.
Another crucial element of the U.S. strategy moving forward is to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement that will establish the framework for future Afghan-U.S. security relations. The U.S. must negotiate appropriate terms for a U.S. troop presence (possibly around 20 – 30,000) to remain in Afghanistan to train and advise local forces and conduct counterterrorism operations. The Afghans will need international (mainly U.S.) funding to sustain their army and police forces – now numbering 352,000 – as well as continued U.S. air support, logistics, and intelligence. Supporting the Afghan forces will cost the U.S. around $2.5 billion annually – a price worth paying to prevent the Taliban from retaking power and allowing al-Qaeda to re-establish bases in the country.
Most importantly, the U.S. and Afghan governments together must get a handle on the insider attacks. These attacks have already forced NATO to cut back on joint patrolling. If they do not abate soon, the entire foundation of the mission, which depends on Americans training and advising their Afghan counterparts, will crumble.
Getting Pakistan on Board
It will be impossible to stabilize Afghanistan if terrorist safe havens continue to exist inside Pakistan. The administration must be willing to cut aid to Pakistan if it fails to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries on its soil. Despite America’s provision of upward of $23 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan over the last decade, Islamabad continues to turn a blind eye, and even support in some cases, the Taliban and Haqqani network fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.
There are signs that Pakistani leaders realize that a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan could have a destabilizing impact on Pakistan. The Pakistan government recently agreed to release several jailed Taliban officials in an apparent effort to facilitate peace talks between the insurgents and Afghan authorities. The Pakistanis have not said whether they would release Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar, who had been deeply engaged in peace negotiations with the Afghan government before his arrest in Karachi in February 2010. Beradar’s release would signal that the Pakistanis are indeed warming up to the idea of a compromise political solution in Afghanistan.
The best way to encourage more steps in this direction is for Washington to make clear that the future of the U.S.-Pakistan partnership and aid relationship hinges on the level of cooperation from Islamabad with U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Taliban Resurgence: A Boon for International Terrorism
While the elimination of Osama bin Laden and his top deputies over the last two years signals major strides against the organization, it is wrong to assume that the fight against global terrorism is over and that the U.S. can simply turn its attention elsewhere.
The U.S. still faces formidable threats from terrorists associated with al-Qaeda that currently find refuge in Pakistan and could easily set up shop again in Afghanistan. There is a genuine risk of the Taliban re-establishing its power base and facilitating the revival of al-Qaeda in the region if the U.S. and NATO give up on the Afghanistan mission. RF
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.. Before joining Heritage in August 2006, Curtis served on the professional staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she oversaw South Asia issues for then-Chairman Richard Lugar.
First appeared in The Ripon Forum.