Back Into Afghanistan?

It's time to stop throwing good money after bad.

The eroding political and security dominion of the government of Afghanistan has once again raised the potential of increased U.S. military and civilian assistance. President Obama made the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces by the end of 2016 a central premise of his policy toward Afghanistan, but on the advice of his military and civilian staffs, he has modified that target. The new one is 9,800 troops through most of 2016, and 5,500 by the effective conclusion of his term. Moreover, he curbed the mission of these remaining troops to training and assisting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and to counterterrorism.

However, the Pentagon’s fourth-quarter assessment of security in Afghanistan noted that “[through] the second half of 2015, the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks and higher [ANDSF] and Taliban casualties.” Indeed, the September collapse of the ANDSF and the civilian government in Kunduz, previously safely in government hands, and its stunning (if only temporary) capture by the Taliban, shocked Kabul to the core. Retaking it became the government’s highest priority, and the city proper was recaptured in a concerted military effort days later, although the surrounding provincial countryside remains contested.

Similarly, Badakhshan province, also securely in government hands a few years ago, is now also contested. So, too, are Faryab and Uruzgan. Helmand Province, the traditional home of the Taliban, has been almost entirely lost; only three of its fourteen districts remain under government control, at best, and its provincial capital is surrounded. Likewise Kandahar, the Taliban’s “capital,” remains (optimistically) disputed.

Meanwhile, over 1,800 Afghan soldiers and police were killed in the first third of 2015 and another 3,400 were wounded, almost 66 percent more than the previous year. Most troublingly, out of near desperation, the government is turning for security to the same marauding warlords and private militias it pledged previously to crush.

The insurgency is now also divided between the Taliban and Daesh, that is, Islamic State. The Taliban are now, unexpectedly, the relative moderates, but they have had their own internal splits since the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar. Although Daesh has enjoyed only limited inroads so far, it has considerable momentum, much of it at the Taliban’s expense. More importantly, perhaps, Daesh redefines an insurgency pole pulling the Taliban in more fundamentalist and rejectionist directions, and probably narrowing the limits for any negotiated settlement to which the Taliban can agree and commit.

So the government, and indirectly the coalition, is now confronted by a decaying security context; a degenerating and corrupt military and police force; a resurgent and growing, rather than waning, insurgency; two rebellious adversaries, one more virulent than the other; an inimical regional neighborhood, especially in Pakistan; and a foreign coalition that resembles the (disappearing) Cheshire cat.


Back In?

In that context, it cannot be surprising that outgoing Resolute Support commander, U.S. General John Campbell, wants either to enhance not reduce his force structure if the deterioration is to be stanched, never mind reversed. “Afghanistan has not achieved an enduring level of security and stability that justifies a reduction of our support in 2016," he recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. President Obama’s advisors are wary of asking him again to abandon his troop targets and at least retain, if not increase, the current military and civilian assistance levels, which would mean handing his successor a U.S. military engagement in another unresolved conflict (beyond Iraq and, now, Syria), one which he promised to liquidate.

The “reduction alternative,” they understand, would court the likelihood of Afghanistan’s continued deterioration. Ultimately, it could once again become a Taliban state, complete with human rights abuses, and the loss of everything that has been gained at such expense in Afghan and coalition lives and funds, particularly health and education. That alternative also threatens Obama’s legacy. But personal legacy is no reason to go to war—or extend one. Neither, unfortunately, is the yearning to preserve the past investment of lives and treasure by doubling down on them.

But is that the right result? If so, under what conditions?