The South Asia Channel

Bringing Afghanistan Back Into the Spotlight

The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death made America start talking about Afghanistan again. And that’s a good thing.

US Marines and Navy Sergeant Trung Tran (L), First Leutenant William Kloth (3L), Corporal Joseph Albrecht (3R) and Hospitalman 3 Dylan Morris (2nd R) from Police Mentoring Team, 2nd and 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) 1st and 2nd Marine Division (Forward) walk through opium poppy fields during a meet and greet joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Habibullah village in Khanashin District, Helman province, on April 24, 2011. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said April 21 it was possible that 2011 could see a decisive turning point in the war in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marines and Navy Sergeant Trung Tran (L), First Leutenant William Kloth (3L), Corporal Joseph Albrecht (3R) and Hospitalman 3 Dylan Morris (2nd R) from Police Mentoring Team, 2nd and 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) 1st and 2nd Marine Division (Forward) walk through opium poppy fields during a meet and greet joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Habibullah village in Khanashin District, Helman province, on April 24, 2011. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said April 21 it was possible that 2011 could see a decisive turning point in the war in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 29, Afghanistan announced the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The announcement was understandably a huge story for the U.S. media, with coverage focusing in particular on the implications for fledgling peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, and for the future prospects of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the broader region.

In short, Afghanistan has been in the news in America in a big way.

And that’s a major change from recent months.

Indeed, the announcement of Omar’s death — and the buzz provoked by it — shattered a striking silence in this country about Afghanistan.

In America these days — on the airwaves, on the presidential campaign trail, and seemingly in general — one hears relatively little about Afghanistan. In some ways this is understandable; Americans generally pay little attention to foreign affairs. Still, this trend extends to places where you would least expect it. U.S media coverage of foreign affairs, for example, has focused less on Afghanistan (though reportage does temporarily pick up when there’s a big terror attack or some other big story, such as Omar’s death, to cover). Over the first five months of 2015, the number of articles in the New York Times mentioning the word “Afghanistan” was half that of those published over the same period in 2012.

Consider that on July 20, U.S. military helicopters accidentally fired on an Afghan Army outpost not far from Kabul. As many as 14 Afghan soldiers may have died, making it one of the worst friendly fire incidents in Afghanistan in several years. And yet it caused barely a ripple in the United States. Media coverage was sparse. Other than issuing statements of regret, American officials were quiet.

Here in Washington, home to the country’s foreign affairs cognoscenti, debate about Afghanistan — other than in circles populated by country specialists and others paid to analyze and aid the country — has been relatively muted. A cursory look at the websites of some of the city’s top think tanks reveals that each has hosted just a handful of public events specifically on Afghanistan this year (see Brookings, Carnegie, CSIS, Heritage, and, admittedly, my own Wilson Center). There are exceptions — witness the Atlantic Council’s new Afghanistan Rising initiative — but overall the focus on Afghanistan appears not as sharp as in previous years.

So what gives?

The basic answer, in all likelihood, is that the United States has ended its combat role in the Afghanistan war. America regards Afghanistan largely through the lens of the war, and with American troops no longer actively fighting in that war, that lens has effectively gone dark. With all but 9,800 troops gone, the country has tumbled out of the news cycle and policy debates have moved on to more pressing matters.

This helps explain why we’re also hearing less about Pakistan (though the recent lull in terrorist violence is likely a factor as well). In Washington, Pakistan tends to be viewed through the lens of Afghanistan (to the annoyance of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have historically had a rocky relationship, the two countries tend to be glommed together conceptually, as manifested by the “AfPak” designation). With Americans no longer fighting in Afghanistan, Washington no longer needs as much help from Pakistan (from supply routes to cooperation on drones). Therefore, it need not invest as much time managing, debating, or analyzing the bilateral relationship with Islamabad.

America, however, isn’t only talking less about Afghanistan because it’s no longer at war there. It also appears keen to wash its hands of a conflict that began as the “good war” yet devolved into something much more complicated. Long after the Taliban were overthrown and U.S. objectives in Afghanistan became fuzzy and undefined, U.S. troops continued to die — a reality difficult for many Americans to process.

Indeed, in a powerful essay in The Atlantic published in June, Dominic Tierney writes that the U.S. public “has moved beyond war weariness into a kind of numbing amnesia.” For many Americans, the good-war-gone-bad is now out of sight, out of mind. “Raising the topic of Afghanistan these days is like mentioning mortality,” says Tierney. “There’s a profound desire to change the subject.” (Incidentally, the conflict has been described as the “forgotten war” for at least six years).

Another reason for the subdued U.S. focus on Afghanistan could be donor fatigue — the international community’s increasing unwillingness to support a country that continues to be convulsed by corruption and plagued by poor aid delivery systems, even after many billions of dollars of assistance. The U.N. has not come close to receiving the $405 million it has requested this year to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian problems, and NATO has pledged to provide just $5 billion annually to Afghan security forces through 2017. According to the Congressional Research Service, in fiscal year 2011, during the height of the U.S. troop surge, the United States alone spent $110 billion in Afghanistan.

This fatigue may be extending beyond the donors. One detects a sense of resignation among some Washington-based analysts — rooted in the view that despite progress, the country remains mired in a cycle of corruption, poor leadership, and ineffectiveness (similar sentiments are voiced about Pakistan). It is a view reinforced by the gloomy reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who repeatedly besieges Washington with news of waste, fraud, and dysfunction — both in Afghanistan and in the U.S. aid system that supports it.

Contrast this view of Afghanistan with that of India, regarded by many in D.C. as a country on the rise, with great-power aspirations, and whose relationship with the United States — while laden with obstacles — is on an upward trajectory after decades of dysfunction and a more recent period of drift. The two countries share many similar concerns, from the rise of China to terrorism. Washington’s intended “pivot” to Asia envisions a key balancing role for India. In effect, while Afghanistan spawns resignation, India sparks optimism. The recent upsurge in India-related activities in the Washington think tank community — including a number of major conferences featuring very big names — can perhaps be understood in this context.

A final reason why little is being said about Afghanistan is the perfect storm of game-changer developments simultaneously unfolding overseas: the Islamic State’s rapid ascent, Russia’s aggressions, normalized U.S. relations with Cuba, and, most recently, the U.S.-Iran nuclear accord. Afghanistan, quite simply, can’t compete.

And yet there are four good reasons — beyond the death of Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s leadership crisis — why it should still be on America’s radar.

First, U.S. forces — nearly 10,000 of them — are still in Afghanistan. They’re no longer in a combat role, but they are providing training and other assistance to Afghan forces — and still vulnerable to energy attacks. Additionally, with a presidential election next year, someone not named Barack Obama will soon be making decisions on future troop levels. If the security situation badly deteriorates in Afghanistan in the coming year or two, America’s next commander in chief could well bring combat troops back to the country.

Second, the Islamic State’s influence and inroads in Afghanistan are concerning. Numerous disaffected Taliban militants, unhappy about organizational infighting and an absentee supreme leader, have asserted allegiance to the Islamic State. Omar’s death should intensify this trend. In Nangarhar province, pro-Islamic State militants are actively battling Taliban fighters. According to recent reports, they are increasingly well-funded — raising the possibility of formal institutional linkages between sympathetic forces in Afghanistan and the parent organization in the Middle East. Recall that several months ago, Islamic State announced its official expansion into Afghanistan.

Third, Afghanistan’s opium harvests are breaking records. This has troubling implications for America, where heroin use is surging. Afghanistan supplies the bulk of the world’s heroin. Addicts in the United States could soon be using a lot of heroin from Afghanistan — especially if authorities succeed in curbing supplies from Mexico, the current source of most of America’s heroin.

Fourth, despite all this bad news, Afghanistan is hosting a formal peace process. After a recent meeting in Pakistan between representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government, a statement attributed to Omar endorsed the idea of negotiations. In effect, arguably for the first time, the organization’s top leadership has given its assent. To be sure, not all factions of the Taliban are supportive. The mere start of a peace process by no means ensures peace. And Omar’s death will certainly delay if not set back the process. Still, Afghanistan has an unprecedented opportunity to end politically a war that the United States could not end militarily.

That’s just one more reason for America to start talking about Afghanistan again.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

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