The Next Administration Can’t Be Complacent on Afghanistan
It’s the battlefield of America’s longest war. It’s the country in which the 9/11 attacks were plotted. It’s known as the “graveyard of empires.” Despite the United States’ ongoing military presence in the country, Afghanistan has had little political salience this election season. But while the conflict in Afghanistan has received little attention on the campaign trail or in the media, it will require immediate attention from the next administration.
The threat environment facing Afghan forces remains challenging and appears to be getting worse. Shifting their tactics away from brazen attacks on government buildings, the Taliban has focused on cutting off supply routes until villages are forced to surrender, allowing the insurgents to expand the territory under their control. This, combined with low morale in the Afghan security forces, has allowed the hardline Taliban movement to make alarming gains. According to the UN, the Taliban has gained more ground in 2016 than during any other year since 2001 and, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, the insurgency now controls or influences 33 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, with another 116 contested. Recently, the Taliban has put pressure on government forces in population centers like Kunduz in the north and Lashkar Gah in the south. In the east, an Islamic State (IS) offshoot has gained a foothold in Nangarhar Province. Over the summer, the IS affiliate carried out an attack against minority Hazara protesters in Kabul, killing at least 80.
It’s not just Afghan security forces that are struggling; the political situation in Afghanistan is similarly challenging. Constitutional and electoral reforms required as part of the power-sharing deal that followed disputed presidential elections in 2014 have been delayed, as have parliamentary elections. Moreover, the National Unity Government itself is under strain. Over the summer, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah suggested that President Ashraf Ghani’s reluctance to engage with key stakeholders made him unfit to lead, an opinion seemingly shared by many of Ghani’s colleagues in government. Recently, vice president and militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum appeared to threaten the government in a press conference where he complained that his Uzbek constituency in the north had been marginalized. Democratic transitions are notoriously messy, and Afghanistan remains beset by endemic corruption and a fractious politics that is often seen through the lens of ethnicity.
The lack of political unity and good governance in Kabul exacerbates the challenges faced by Afghan security forces. With severe resource constraints and an expanding Taliban offensive, Afghan forces see high casualty and attrition rates. However, as Afghanistan expert and former U.S. Army officer Christopher Kolenda has noted, “when soldiers are well-led and fighting for a government that they believe in, they are willing to endure enormous sacrifices.” The problem, he argues, arises when troops lose faith in their leaders. In fact, General John Nicholson, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently described the trickle-down impact of these governance failures:
“One of the principal factors for the high casualties has been the leadership, the failures of leadership at certain levels...the failure is not the young soldier on the ground, the failure is the ability to properly supply them and lead them.”
For all of the hardship that Afghanistan has endured, there is some cause for optimism. Afghan forces, with U.S. support, have been able to beat back Taliban efforts to seize major population centers. Over the summer, the Obama administration rightly decided to further slow the withdrawal of troops, as well as expand the rules of engagement for U.S. military personnel so that American soldiers are better able to support Afghan forces. And in October, the international community came together in Brussels to pledge a much needed $15 billion in aid for the country through 2020--just a slight annual decrease compared with what was pledged at Tokyo in 2012.
However, the next administration must ensure that Afghanistan remains a priority through the transition. It is a core interest for the United States that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorists; yet Afghanistan’s military and political travails could see it become just that. The next administration should engage energetically with the Afghan government to act as an honest broker among rival stakeholders so that political leaders can focus on delivering services and supporting Afghan soldiers and police in their fight against insurgents and terrorists. Afghanistan has made important progress over the past 15 years and it’s not too late to stanch the bleeding and turn things around. But the next administration must avoid complacency and devote high-level attention to Afghanistan before it’s too late.