The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s New Leaders Are Committed, The U.S. Should Be, Too

After President Ashraf Ghani took the oath of office on Sept. 29, his first decree as president was to establish the post of Chief Executive. Abdullah Abdullah and his deputies were sworn in immediately after first Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and second Vice President Sarwar Danish. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, called ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

After President Ashraf Ghani took the oath of office on Sept. 29, his first decree as president was to establish the post of Chief Executive. Abdullah Abdullah and his deputies were sworn in immediately after first Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and second Vice President Sarwar Danish. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, called this new national unity government "Afghanistan’s triumph of statesmanship and compromise." With the six-month election process — including an almost three-month audit — behind them and myriad challenges ahead, however, the real tests for Ghani and Abdullah lay ahead, not behind them.

For its part, the United States played a significant role in bringing the two camps together and now shoulders the heavy responsibility of supporting the new government through the difficult days ahead.  Since the agreement was signed, Ghani and Abdullah have started moving past campaign rhetoric and ideological differences, choosing instead to focus on dealing with the enormous challenges in front of them. Today’s inauguration — the first democratic transition of power in Afghan modern history — should serve as a milestone for the international community to recommit its support to the Afghan enterprise and usher a new period of reforms by the Ghani-Abdullah government that proves it worthy of donor support.

The compromise reached between Ghani and Abdullah and the subsequent formation of the national unity government are clear signs that both men put their country’s interests first. As Ghani mentioned in his inaugural speech, the national unity government is not about the division of power, it is more about sharing responsibility. Undoubtedly, both men realize that the challenges that the new Afghan government is facing will test their ability to respect the promises made in the framework agreement.  

However, if the inauguration speeches by Ghani and Abdullah offer early indications, it appears that both men are well aware of the enormous undertaking that confronts them and that tackling these problems requires their cooperation. Also, they realize that their effectiveness depends on their ability to carefully manage their constituencies and control their tempers. To support their efforts, the United States and the rest of the international community must pledge its long-term support to the necessary transformation of the Afghan government.

Although much of the world’s attention has shifted from Afghanistan, choosing to focus instead on combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State as they call themselves, Afghanistan remains a major battleground against violent extremism. In fact, even within the context of the danger posed from ISIL, Afghanistan is in fact home to groups sympathetic to the Islamic State and thus, support to the Afghan government should remain in the forefront of U.S. foreign policy and strategic priorities.

In his speech to the United Nations, President Obama called for the international community to combat the scourge of new jihadi fundamentalists that Obama called a "cancer of violent extremism." According to Charles Krauthammer, Obama’s strategy seems to center on expelling the Islamic State from Iraq and containing it in Syria. Although Obama did not mention Afghanistan, or its democratic transition of power in his speech, the insurgent groups found in Afghanistan are equally dangerous and just as ‘cancerous.’ Further, more recent attacks in Ghazni province suggest that the Islamic State cannot be contained in the Middle East and that its cancer has already spread to Afghanistan and the region.

Just this week, hundreds of insurgents attacked the Ajrestan district of Ghazni province, killing 100 Afghans, 15 of which were beheaded. Only after a daring assault by Afghan Commandos was the Afghan government able to keep the district from falling into enemy hands. Similarly, in Sangin district of Helmand province, insurgents are almost in control as fighting has claimed the lives of 230 Afghan police officers and Army soldiers since June of this year. Coalition and Afghan security forces paid a heavy toll in taking over the district from the insurgents back in 2010. In one seven month deployment, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had 25 Marines killed in action and 184 wounded; 34 of the wounded came home as single, double, and triple amputees. According to Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian, "(n)early a quarter of the 453 British soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan died in Sangin or from injuries inflicted during fighting there."

Unfortunately, some isolationists within the U.S. administration may want to use the democratic transition from Karzai to Ghani as a milestone to start divesting from the U.S. mission. Hopefully, more thoughtful advisors will suggest to Obama that maintaining a focus and presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future will prove critical in combating violent extremism in Central and South Asia and preventing the spread of the Islamic State’s ideology in Central and South Asia.

Like it or not, Afghanistan remains a key battlefront in the fight against extremists, terrorists, and fanatics hiding behind the veil of religious fundamentalism. The uncertainty that surrounded the prolonged election process, in many ways, emboldened the insurgents and strengthened their narrative. Additionally, while the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end at the end of this year, al Qaeda fighters, while diminished in number, remain strong in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although unsavory in Washington political circles, al Qaeda’s presence and the introduction of groups who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State make an enduring U.S. counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan long past 2015 necessary. Complicated by the Taliban’s significant gains in parts of Afghanistan in past months, at times aided by foreign fighters, Obama would be smart to reconsider his earlier arbitrary timeline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2015. It is imperative that Ghani and Abdullah have the necessary time to combat the insurgency physically, but also counter their narrative through reform initiatives.

In the end, while many Afghans are weary of the U.S. withdrawal and are still recovering from election fatigue, most remain hopeful that the new administration will be able to chart a better course than Karzai. Although challenged by the deteriorating security, rampant corruption, and downward trending economy, Ghani and Abdullah are very different than Karzai and eminently more qualified to govern.  

As they form their national unity government, however, Ghani and Abdullah will have to heal the wounds from years of deteriorating relations between the Arg Palace and the White House. Already, they have signaled a significant shift from Karzai’s tactics. For instance, twelve months ago,  Karzai put the country in a bind by refusing to sing the Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) with the United States and stepped up his verbal attacks towards the West. In a striking contrast to Karzai’s stance, the new Afghan government pledged to sign the BSA only 24 hours after the inauguration. Similarly, while Karzai used his farewell address to take yet another swing at the United States and the West, telling his senior staff and cabinet: "the Americans did not want peace in Afghanistan," both Ghani and Abdullah used their inauguration speech to strike a conciliatory and appreciative tone to the countries who are helping Afghanistan.

To be fair, the United States and the international community have made a lot of mistakes. But, let’s hope that the era of unnecessary friction between Kabul and Washington is over. Rebuilding a positive relationship will go a long way in building sufficient political support in the United States for the Afghan mission. Also, warmer relations and delivery on promises of reform will convince Obama to extend U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2015. Retaining a small, long-term residual presence in Afghanistan will prove vital to core U.S. interests and the fight against violent extremism. 

More specifically, the United States should maintain a counter-terrorism task force that partners with its Afghan counterparts and assist the ANSF development in areas such as aviation and logistics that are lagging behind long past 2015. Obama has admitted that the United States underestimated ISIL in Iraq and Syria and overestimated the capabilities of the Iraqi Army. Although not directly analogous, the United States should not underestimate the enemy in Afghanistan and must continue to support a nascent ANSF as they mature. Only with a sustainable — albeit smaller, lighter, and tailored — U.S. military presence will the new Afghan government be able to gain ground against a dangerous insurgency that includes an introduction of Islamic State elements into the mix.

Ultimately, Ghani and Abdullah will have to work quickly to regain some positive momentum for Afghanistan. Starting with the signing of the BSA and the selection of a reform-minded cabinet, the Ghani-Abdullah national unity government will hopefully start delivering on the promises of security, reform, economic development, and countering corruption. But for progress to endure, and by extension, for all Afghan and Coalition sacrifices to matter, the international community will have to recommit its support to the Afghan mission.

Ioannis Koskinas is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, a retired military officer, and as CEO of Hoplite Group he focuses on frontier market analysis and economic development projects in South Asia.

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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