In Afghanistan, Hard Is Not Hopeless—but Time Is Running Out

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Two weekends ago, a Taliban bombing killed more than 100 and injured over 200 more in Afghanistan. The bombing took place in the heart of Kabul in an area considered among the country’s most secure. Along with a recent flurry of terrorist violence, the attack demonstrates the magnitude of the challenges facing the coalition effort in Afghanistan.

When he announced a new way forward in South Asia, the President made clear that he was going against his initial instincts to withdraw American forces. Instead, after listening to his senior advisors and military leaders, he decided to modestly expand our footprint in the country. In light of the President’s reservations, this may be our last chance to get Afghanistan right. Seventeen years into the longest war in our nation’s history, we still have enduring interests in South Asia—but securing them requires an honest look at our goals and the resources we are willing to spend in pursuit of those goals.

I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan with a bipartisan Congressional delegation over the Christmas holiday. On the positive side, the new South Asia Strategy has renewed optimism among Afghanistan’s leaders, many of whom feared that we might abandon their country. I was moved to hear that when Vice President Pence told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah that we would only withdraw forces based on conditions on the ground—not arbitrary timelines—the two political rivals embraced and began to cry. It reminded me that these decisions, while difficult for us, are often existential for our allies.

Afghan leadership also seems to welcome the strategy’s focus on Pakistan’s destabilizing influence in Afghanistan. As one official put it, “if our efforts in Afghanistan are like filling a sink, Pakistan is the plug.” We were told that while 90% of insurgencies fail, those that succeed do so because they have external support and safe havens. At the same time, working to restrain Pakistan’s support for radical groups in Afghanistan is not exactly a new idea. The jury is out whether the new strategy will result in markedly better Pakistani behavior, or perhaps backfire and throw Pakistan further into China’s orbit.

The new strategy has led to optimism—and unanswered questions—on other fronts as well. By adopting looser rules of engagement and delegating decision-making authority down the chain of command, the military has increased the tempo of their operations, serving as a force multiplier for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who are doing most of the fighting on the ground. Though many officials spoke positively about improving ANSF battlefield prowess (particularly their special forces equivalent), they also noted the crucial forthcoming deployment of a new American Security Force Assistance Brigade of about 1,000 military advisors. These advisors will embed with Afghan security forces at remote locations across the country to increase their capabilities before the next fighting season.

Unfortunately, behind even this good news is an example of the challenges facing our efforts in Afghanistan. Recent reports indicate that the military advisor units are short-staffed and will be deploying without their full training regimen. The Pentagon cut training for the Security Force Assistance Brigade from 12 months to 8 and cut an additional Army course for combat advisors from 6 weeks to 2. Given that these advisors are a lynchpin of our new strategy, their abbreviated training is troubling.

The advisors will have their work cut out for them because the Taliban has expanded areas under its control over the last two years. According to some estimates, the Taliban controls or contests about 41% of the country, up from only 21% in 2016 and 18% in 2015. At the same time, Taliban forces are growing, with an estimated 60,000 fighters now compared to only about 20,000 just four years ago.

Even if the ANSF, backed by U.S.-led coalition forces, are able to reverse this trend, regain ground, and establish operational control of most of the country, this merely gives Afghanistan’s political leaders an opportunity to make lasting political reforms. Without responsible governance and economic growth—growth that does not come from the rampant drug trade—any security gains will be temporary and tenuous at best. Consequently, we must continue to assist the fledgling Afghan state while focusing on counter-corruption programs to ensure dollars spent on reconstruction reach their intended destination.

Unfortunately, a recent quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed a disturbing new lapse in transparency. For the past two years, SIGAR has publicly reported data on Taliban control and influence in Afghanistan on a district-level basis. In its January 2018 report, however, SIGAR states that it was directed by DoD not to release these figures to the public. As the report notes, "This is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked 'unclassified' to the American taxpayer.” While DoD hastily replied that the issue with SIGAR resulted from a “clerical error,” and subsequently released the relevant numbers, the episode raises questions about the transparency and efficacy of our efforts.

Now is the time to be honest about what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan, what it will cost, how we measure progress on the ground, and how this will be different from the last 17 years. And beyond the importance of denying terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, we must also emphasize the geopolitical importance of establishing a foothold in Central Asia at a time of increasing great power competition. Here Congress has a critical role to play—conducting robust oversight to make sure we are reinforcing success, and we are not funding failure. This will not be easy, and the American people will not tolerate an endless war in Afghanistan. But we have a chance to get it right. It may be the last one we get.

Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Marine Veteran representing Wisconsin's 8th District.  He currently serves on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.

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