Best Defense

In Afghanistan, how about trying this?: Don’t just do something, stand there

Some of his national security advisors are encouraging President Obama to keep American military personnel in Afghanistan past his self-imposed deadline of having all but about 5,500 U.S. troops out by the end of the year.

A coalition force member stands on top of a hill watching a snow-covered mountain range in Kabul province, Afghanistan, March 1, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Freire)
A coalition force member stands on top of a hill watching a snow-covered mountain range in Kabul province, Afghanistan, March 1, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Freire)

 

By Gary Anderson
Best Defense bureau chief for the Hindu Kush

Some of his national security advisors are encouraging President Obama to keep American military personnel in Afghanistan past his self-imposed deadline of having all but about 5,500 U.S. troops out by the end of the year. Recent Taliban gains in the country have senior military officials concerned that the withdrawal plan will undermine ongoing efforts to strengthen the Afghan military and shore up the fledgling democracy, however imperfect, that we have built since our initial intervention. The number of troops left is less relevant then the question that has never been answered; what end state do we envision for Afghanistan? More properly, is there a vision at all? There are actually a number of alternative visions. The real issue is which does the next president want to pursue and will this President leave him the tools to pursue it?

The first vision is the status quo. Afghanistan today looks like China before the Japanese intervention in the 1930s. At that time the country was largely divided between the Nationalist government recognized by most of the rest of the world, Mao’s Communists, and a variety of warlords only loyal to the central government when it suited them. There was a strong foreign presence including Americans that were in the country to protect their various national interests and most loosely supported the Nationalist government. One of the stated objectives of Mao’s rebels was to get rid of the foreigners. No Chinese faction was strong enough to prevail. This status quo was acceptable to the United States at the time, and the Roosevelt administration believed that the cost of keeping a few thousand sailors, soldiers, and Marines on “China Station’ was worth the price. That kind of impasse is essentially what many in the Pentagon see as the immediate near term future for Afghanistan until all sides agree on peace talks.

The status quo isn’t perfect, but it is about the best we can hope for until the next president comes up with his own vision. For the past twelve months, the American military casualty rate has about equaled that of our troops in Hawaii.

The second vision is that of the Taliban. Like Mao’s Communists in China of the 1930s, they want all foreign military forces gone, and that is the underlying Taliban demand before they will enter into any peace talks. Because of the planned American draw down, the Taliban currently have no reason to negotiate as they hope that the next American leader will finish the withdrawal. From the Taliban perspective, it would seem that they are in the catbird seat; however, they have a serious problem. One of the major foreign military presences in the nation is on their side. The Taliban have never demanded that the residual of al Qaeda leave the country, and that group is decidedly foreign. Foreign jihadists are also the reason we intervened in Afghanistan the first place. More dangerous than al Qaeda is the presence of ISIS.

ISIS is not only a foreign presence in Afghanistan, but it demands fealty to its Caliph in Raqqa, Syria; ISIS sees Afghanistan as part of a province known as Khurasan if and when they finally triumph. If the notoriously independent Afghans refused to kowtow to Queen Victoria, it is hard to imagine them acknowledging another foreign sovereign, even if this one claims to be descended from the prophet Mohammed.

In addition to foreign fighters, there are elements of the Taliban benefiting from the war. The Haqqani network along Pakistan border is profiting nicely from the conflict. In the northwest, where I spent most of my Afghan time, the people who called themselves Taliban were making a great living from the opium trade in partnership with several warlords from the old Northern Alliance. Peace would mean the completion of the Ring Road in the northwest and the ability of the Afghan security forces to gain control bringing the threat of law and order. None of that would be good for the drug trade. In other words, Taliban Central might negotiate an external peace and find itself in an internal civil war. In such a conflict, Taliban central might actually welcome the support of American airpower and Special Forces against the foreign jihadists.

This brings us to the third vision, that of the Afghan government which has its own factional divisions. With the current American and NATO troop strength, the Kabul government is holding its own. It won’t be overrun, but it will likely continue to lose some ground in the Pashtun majority regions of the country along the AFPAK border. Few believe that the government will ever subdue that part of “Pashtunistan” on the Afghan side of the old Durand line any more than the Pakistanis will be able to control the Pashtun population on their side of the line. In other words, most realists in Kabul understand that any peace agreement will look like the status quo without the current level of live fire, and one where they may find themselves in common cause with the Taliban against foreign jihadists.

This is the quandary that President Obama faces. The President originally wanted to fulfill his campaign promises to end our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; that ship has sailed, and he will have to secure his legacy in other areas. If Mr. Obama withdraws troop strength down below the level recommended by the Pentagon and things go south militarily, his Afghan legacy will be entirely negative. If he retains troop strength at present levels when he hands over the helm to his successor intact, Mr. Obama can say that things had stabilized on his watch and there will be no cry of “Obama lost Afghanistan”. He can also claim that he left the next president with bargaining chips on the table.

A decision not to do anything is still a decision. The best advice anyone can give the President regarding Afghanistan at his time is: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel, was a member of the Defense Adaptive Red Team, which advised the Defense Department on policy toward the Taliban. He traveled to Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 for a study of the future of the Taliban. From 2011-12 he was a civilian advisor in northwest Afghanistan.

Photo credit: Sgt. Matthew Freire/U.S. Army/Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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