Sustaining U.S. Counterterrorism Pressure in Afghanistan
The United States has conducted sixteen years of counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan at a high-operational tempo, which has helped to prevent a catastrophic terror attack from occurring on the homeland. The last one occurred on September 11, 2001. However, in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, Al Qaeda has focused on its regeneration, ISIS-Khorasan has become “operationally emergent,” and the Haqqani Network is now “externally enabled.” The rise of these terror threats signals the need for improvements in U.S. counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan. Within ten months of transitioning to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a large-scale operation in the Shorabak District of the Kandahar Province, which was aimed at destroying two training camps belonging to Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. One of the training camps spanned thirty square miles. The existence of these camps shows how rapid malign actors, such as Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, can exploit under-governed areas in Afghanistan—even with a persistent U.S. presence in Kandahar. Thus, in an area where as many as twenty terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan “creates the largest concentration of terrorist and extremist organizations in the world,” sustained U.S. counterterrorism pressure will prevent violent extremist organizations like Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base from which to plan terror attacks on the United States.
In such a volatile and complex security environment, the United States must have a credible host-nation partner force that can target terrorist leaders, nodes and facilitators. This is a precondition to Secretary Mattis’s vision of success in Afghanistan. The Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) are at the forefront of the fight to deter armed groups’ exploitation of Afghan territory, conducting 80 percent of the Afghan National Army’s offensive operations. As some experts postulate, it is “much cheaper for the United States and its allies to support [the ANDSF] than it is to deploy large numbers of U.S. and other NATO soldiers.”
Simultaneously, given the pervasive instability and unpredictable turbulence in which violent extremist organizations thrive, it is in the interest of the United States to maintain a high-end, albeit small, counterterrorism capability to unilaterally address threat networks. Such an enduring security commitment would signal to Islamabad that Pakistan need not prepare for a post–United States Afghanistan, diluting its incentives to support armed groups that degrade the gains of NATO and the Afghan government. Strengthening partners and weakening adversaries will lead to conditions that are ripe to achieving and sustaining a politically acceptable end-state.
However, regional actors may serve as spoilers with the aim of protecting national interests in Afghanistan and increasing the costs of the United States’ extended presence. Reports of Moscow’s arming of the Afghan Taliban—purportedly under the guise of combating ISIS-Khorasan—add fuel to the conflict. This strategy, a component of what the United States views as irregular warfare doctrine, seeks to “subvert, coerce, attrite, and exhaust an adversary” as opposed to pursuing a defeat through conventional means. Similarly, Iran portrays the Afghan Taliban “not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force” to take advantage of a growing security vacuum. These state actors can exploit these relationships as levers of influence by providing material support to the Taliban to pressure the United States and pursue their geopolitical objectives.