Yesterday, President Obama announced that the 9,800 U.S. military personnel deployed in Afghanistan will remain there for most of 2016, and that 5,500 will remain into 2017. This new strategy is welcome for four reasons.
First, it will enable the continued development of Afghan security forces. As a former commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford (the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs) knows, American patience is crucial. And as I argued when Dunford was first nominated, his leadership in the White House will be critical. Until Afghan forces have the proven leadership depth, aviation, intelligence, and technical capabilities, and logistical infrastructure to operate alone, they will require U.S. support. The U.S. military will now have more influence with the Afghan forces, and be able to help rid them of both mild and horrific unprofessionalism. Establishing all these capabilities takes time to get right – more time than a 2016 withdrawal would have allowed.
Second, it will consolidate Afghanistan against external powers. Afghanistan’s future isn’t influenced solely by domestic forces. Consider Iran. For years, Iran has played its go-to game of unpredictable disruption in the country. Determined to replace American influence with its own, Iran has provided the Taliban (on paper, its existential ideological enemy) with logistical support and weaponry. And as attested by Iran’s covert strategy in Iraq, while the Ayatollah’s men pretend to offer friendship, they only ever offer a deal with the Ayatollah’s devilish agenda: Iranian support in return for feudal subservience.
And of course, there’s Pakistan. Still obsessed by India and the perverse ideal of hegemony over their western neighbor, elements of the Pakistani government continue to push the Taliban and other insurgents against the Afghan people. Caring little that their actions reverberate in the blowback of dead Pakistanis (including children), these imperialists would, uncontested, bury Afghanistan’s better future. Fortunately, by this durable force commitment, the United States can challenge malevolent actors alongside the Afghan government. Moreover, increasingly confident that the world’s most powerful military will have their back for the long term, Afghan politicians will be less vulnerable to external intimidation.
EDITORIAL: In Afghanistan, Obama Starts to Face Reality
Third, this strategy re-calibrates U.S. objectives. By localizing U.S. forces in a small number of locations across Afghanistan, President Obama is rationalizing U.S. policy ambitions. Although the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001 with the hope of establishing a central-government-led democracy, that ambition has not been realized. Instead, this new U.S. force structure reflects an understanding that the Taliban will retain influence — especially in Afghanistan’s rural south and east — for years to come. At the same time, however, it gives the Afghan government the space and support for urban development, improved governance, economic growth, and gradually improving connectivity. This approach also allows the Afghan government to reverse defeats — as it has done by retaking the city of Kunduz.
#share#Fourth, this strategy helps counter the rising Islamic State threat. Recognizing the Islamic State’s challenge for ownership — at least at provincial levels — over the Afghan insurgency, America’s durable presence brings crucial capabilities to bear. As I’ve explained before, the Islamic State’s fanaticism means that it must be confronted and annihilated wherever it raises its banner. By committing to stay in Afghanistan, the U.S. gains new physical and psychological advantages. On the physical front, aggressive U.S. military action against the Islamic State will help alter the strategic calculus of insurgent commanders. Once the Islamic State’s banner becomes a symbol for an ignominious death in a field, its recruiting glamor will be lessened. On the psychological side, by informing these terrorists that they will face U.S. military power for years to come, the U.S. will also help repudiate al-Qaeda/Islamic State propaganda that America is a paper tiger without staying power. This will help America and the Afghan government reclaim the strategic initiative.
Unfortunately, there’s also one problematic element in this strategy: By asserting that only 5,500 troops will be in Afghanistan when he leaves office, President Obama risks sparking a round of U.S. domestic partisanship that will adversely affect U.S. national-security interests. By throwing liberals a 5,500-troop-drawdown bone for 2017, Obama makes it more likely that 2016 election silliness will get involved. And if presidential frontrunners try to “outdo” Obama’s drawdown, they’ll inherently weaken the four positive effects of this new strategy.
Still, while President Obama’s evolution on Afghanistan is largely a reflection of his disastrous Iraq experience, the Commander-in-Chief deserves credit for making the right decision.