Defeating Islamist fanaticism requires three policy ingredients: moral clarity, intellectual agility, and strategic persistence. And today, in that regard, there’s new cause for hope. According to the New York Times, President Obama has authorized continued combat operations in Afghanistan post-2014. Previously, U.S. forces were to end operations this year.
President Obama’s decision is the right one. It recognizes that we should be cautiously optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan. Over the past 13 years, coalition personnel have pushed back the Taliban and improved the lives of millions. Infrastructure development has fostered a booming telecommunications trade and ever-increasing Internet access. Economic opportunity has spread. Though Afghan security forces face major challenges, they’re holding ground against the Taliban. Moreover, in President Ashraf Ghani’s status-of-forces agreement and renewed action to neutralize Taliban leaders, Afghanistan has left behind the chaos of Hamid Karzai. To be sure, Afghanistan faces many challenges. But its future has never looked brighter.
President Obama’s decision also reflects the fact that Afghan security forces need U.S. military assistance. While Afghan forces have grown far stronger over the past three years, they lack sufficient “combat enablers” in command and control, technical intelligence, aviation (transport and close air support), and supply logistics. For the next few years, only America can fulfill these operational gaps. But the current gaps aren’t only in the area of capabilities. At present, Afghan officers — junior, senior, and noncommissioned — also vary in quality. Some are effective professionals, but others are corrupt and lazy. This problem was on display recently when three officers went AWOL while training in the U.S. Desertion remains a major problem for Afghan security forces and reflects their ongoing institutional development. Still, the greatest challenge is the national police force, which is riven by corruption and horrific abuse. Durable American efforts are critical to solving these issues. Remember, the success or failure of our withdrawal rests on whether Afghan forces become reliably self-sufficient. We mustn’t replicate the security-forces debacle that followed our withdrawal from Iraq.
President Obama’s decision suggests as well that he is learning to ignore his advisers and has learned from his 2011 Iraq withdrawal. This is a big deal. After all, the president’s national-security team remains mostly delusional. Consider how one official explained the opposition to this extension of American forces in Afghanistan. “There was a school of thought that wanted the mission to be very limited, focused solely on al-Qaeda.” This is pure idiocy. In 2015, such a tightly confined mission would abandon Afghans to the Taliban and invite a catastrophic replication of ISIS. This conclusion doesn’t take a genius; it just takes a map. Wedged between Iran, the virulent fanatics in northwest Pakistan and the machinations of the ISI, Afghanistan in the future would be left to a mix of warlords and transnational terrorist groups. However, with an ongoing American presence, Ghani’s Afghanistan, alongside India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, can contribute to improved regional stability. And there’s another benefit here: The combat extension, as physical proof of resolution, shows that the United States has taken a small step toward redeeming its international credibility.
True, none of the above is guaranteed. Afghanistan faces great challenges, and Obama may yet equivocate. But this decision should leave us optimistic. As 2014 ends, it offers new confidence that our fallen will find living remembrance in Afghanistan’s better future and in our improved security.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.