The Cable

Islamic State Could Keep U.S. Troops in Afghanistan 

U.S. commanders point to Islamic State threat as justification for keeping force in Afghanistan

TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME

In this photograph taken on August 12, 2015, a US army soldier stands guard at an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME In this photograph taken on August 12, 2015, a US army soldier stands guard at an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Citing the emerging threat posed by the Islamic State as a rationale to keep boots on the ground, U.S. military commanders and senior officials are weighing plans to slow down a planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama had promised to wrap up the military component of America’s longest war by the end of 2016, just before his term in office ends. But U.S. military officers, already concerned that Afghan forces won’t be able to secure their own country without Western help, believe the growing numbers of Islamic State fighters in eastern Afghanistan over the past year has raised the risks associated with a complete withdrawal, Pentagon officials said.

“We do note the potential for them to evolve into something more serious, more dangerous. We take that very seriously,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications in Kabul, said last month.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has pointed to the Islamic State as a danger that could mushroom if Afghanistan is forced to confront the militants without international assistance.

Ghani has begun making the case to donor governments that “Afghanistan is shouldering the burden of fighting foreign extremism” and that the Islamic State is one of several extremist groups threatening the country’s stability, a senior Western official told Foreign Policy.

“We used to call it nascent,” Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan, told reporters in July. “Now we say it’s probably operationally emergent.”

But the level of the threat posed by the Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan — and the extent of its ties to senior ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria — remains unclear, U.S. and Western officials said. That has made it harder for policymakers in Washington to decide how many troops should be left behind to fight the group.

There are currently 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, and the options under consideration range from leaving roughly 8,000 there to reducing down to a few hundred charged solely with guarding the American embassy in Kabul.

“Its very important neither to underestimate ISIL or to exaggerate its presence,” said the senior Western official, using an alternative acronym for the group.

The official said his Afghan counterparts had told him that ISIS was stepping up its recruitment efforts in provinces like Nangahar, in the eastern part of the country, and Zabul, in the south. But, the official cautioned, “the evidence is fragmentary.”

The Islamic State has taken credit for a series of bombings including one in April in Nangarhar that killed 34 people and wounded 125. It has also sought to recruit disaffected members of the Taliban, particularly as morale has been sagging following the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, according to U.S. officials.

Islamic State has sought to spread its influence across the Middle East and U.S. officials believe it sent fighters and weapons to Libya from its bastion in eastern Syria. But it remains unclear if the group’s core leaders have sent militants to Afghanistan to bolster the branch there, officials said.

Although the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State appears to have genuine ties to the Islamic State’s leaders, it has not yet demonstrated it can coordinate sophisticated military operations on a scale similar to that seen in Iraq and Syria — where the extremists have seized large stretches of territory while carrying out brutal atrocities and mass executions.

“There’s little doubt that ISIL would look to continue chipping away at the remaining ties binding the Taliban together despite earlier setbacks,” a U.S. counterterrorism official FP.

But the Afghan branch, the official added, “has not matched the level of success of ISIL in Iraq and Syria or other centers of gravity for the group.”

The questions about the Islamic State’s true strength are helping to fuel a growing internal debate within the administration about whether to keep combat troops in Afghanistan longer than the president had initially planned.

There are 9,800 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, and Campbell has proposed three options, senior administration and military officials said.

The broadest option would keep roughly 8,000 troops in the country that would advise Afghan forces and commanders, the intermediate would involve 5,500 troops that would allow for a counter-terrorism operation, and the narrowest option would limit the troop presence to nearly 1,000 that would be stationed at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, a senior military officer told Foreign Policy.

Campbell is expected to lay out his thinking on the U.S. mission next month at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern about pressing ahead with the drawdown plan, especially after the example of Iraq where security unraveled after American forces pulled out in 2011.

The troop drawdown recommendations were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon and the White House have been engaged in discussions for the past several months on the issue, with the Defense Department more inclined towards a slower pace for the drawdown.

The Obama administration and military commanders have clashed over the years about war strategy in Afghanistan and troop commitments, with White House officials accusing some officers of trying to force the president’s hand. But officials said the recent exchanges were “constructive” and the issue did not represent a major disagreement between the White House and the military.

The discussions are focused on “what kind of capacity and capabilities do we want to support and enhance for the Afghan security forces,” said one senior military officer. “And how well the Afghan forces can meet their responsibilities.”

U.S. military officers say Afghan forces have steadily improved after taking over security for the country in 2014, but they still require help with surveillance aircraft, logistics, air power and medical evacuations.

Since taking over the fight against insurgents, Afghan forces have suffered severe casualties on the battlefield. About 4,700 Afghans have been killed in combat and 7,800 wounded this year, an increase of 60 percent over 2014, according to figures from the Pentagon released in July.

Obama, responding to appeals from Ghani, previously agreed to slow the pace of the drawdown in March, keeping 9,800 troops through this year instead of scaling back to about 5,500 as originally planned.

The American decision on its future military role is being followed closely by NATO allies, which depend on the United States for crucial air and other logistical support for their troops in Afghanistan.  A U.S. pullout could prompt a rush to the exits by other Western forces, and in turn endanger political support on both sides of the Atlantic for substantial international aid.

Photo credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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