U.S. Turning Away From Afghanistan?
The Trump Administration will soon make a final decision on its Afghanistan policy. The main question to be answered: Should the U.S. send more troops to help Afghan security forces continue to battle the Taliban?
After 16 years of military intervention in Afghanistan, it is completely reasonable to question the wisdom of increasing U.S. troops. But much of the opposition to increasing U.S. troop numbers is based on an old style of thinking about Afghanistan and the U.S. mission there.
U.S. policymakers have fallen into two traps when it comes to Afghanistan.
The first is that some still see the military mission through the lens of U.S. objectives in 2001. Both Afghanistan and the broader region have drastically changed since then.
The 2001 objectives, focused mostly on counterterrorism, have largely been achieved. No major terrorist attack originating from Afghanistan has succeeded in the U.S. since 2001. And the terrorist-enabling Taliban that rolled into Kandahar in 1994 is a shadow of its former self.
In 2001, the Taliban controlled the entire country, except for a small rump of territory run by the Northern Alliance. Today, according to the most recent quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Taliban has “control or influence” in only 11 out of the country’s 407 districts—an area that contains only 9 percent of the Afghan population. Moreover, the level of violence is nowhere close to its latest peak in 2010–12.
Al Qaeda, which used Afghan territory with impunity in 2001, no longer enjoys a safe haven there. And while the Islamic State has made some inroads there, the threat it poses in Afghanistan pales in comparison to that posed by its affiliates in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
Today’s security objectives focus on helping the Afghans deal with the Taliban insurgency. The goal is to keep the country from reverting back to the chaos of the 1990s. This is much different from U.S. goals in 2001.
The second trap is failing to see Afghanistan for what it really is: a Central Asian country. Afghanistan is not part of the Middle East, and referring to it as part of the so-called “broader Middle East” is misleading. Culturally, historically, economically and geographically, Afghanistan is part of Central Asia.
In terms of policy, it is critically important to grasp that basic fact. Many of America's greatest challenges converge in Central Asia. There we must deal with an aggressive Russia, an emboldened China, energy transit for many of our NATO and Asian allies, the presence of Islamist extremism, and the flow and recruitment of foreign fighters.
On top of this, the region is experiencing growing influence from Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Some of that can be good; much can be very bad for U.S. security interests. If the U.S. is going to confront these challenges, then Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia cannot be ignored.
As President Trump finalizes his plan for Afghanistan, he must consider what U.S. security objectives are in 2017, not what they were in 2001. He must also see the U.S. presence in Afghanistan through the lens of U.S. policy toward Central Asia, not the Middle East.
The well-established U.S. presence in Afghanistan—diplomatic, economic, and military—helps America keep engaged in an important region at a relatively low cost. Sending an additional 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces is a prudent way to assure we can meet our strategic security objectives. And it will send all the right messages to our allies and foes alike, be they in Europe, Afghanistan, or the rest of Central Asia.
Keeping the U.S. flag flying in an increasingly important and geopolitically challenging part of the world is in America’s interest. Now is not a time to turn our backs on Afghanistan or Central Asia.
Luke Coffey is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy.