TSG IntelBrief: Mired in Afghanistan
October 16, 2015
Bottom Line Up Front:
• President Obama announced that the United States would keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan after the planned 2017 full withdrawal
• The extended commitment, as well as the slowing of the planned 2016 drawdown, is a sober acknowledgment that Afghanistan is unstable and unable to maintain control over huge parts of the country
• It is unclear how 5,500 U.S. troops will counteract the systemic corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government, military, and bureaucracies when 100,000 troops could not
• The narrow counterterrorism focus—and emphasis on special forces operations—will likely continue to be the most effective tactic in the ongoing war.
The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is already longer than U.S. involvement in the U.S. Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined—and has just been extended indefinitely. On October 15, President Obama announced that the planned 2017 withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel (outside of the normal liaison channels) has been delayed indefinitely. The drawdown of the current 9,800 remaining troops, which was to begin early in 2016, has been pushed back towards the end of that year, with a total of 5,500 remaining in 2017 and beyond.
The change in the long-planned withdrawal is an acknowledgment that the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are as powerful now as at any time since the 2001 U.S. invasion that aimed to topple the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda. Only in examining the war through narrow metrics over specific years is it possible to conclude that these two goals have been accomplished in a sustainable fashion. That is no longer possible; the situation is now bad enough to defy even the most generous assessment of sufficient progress at exorbitant cost.
As with the equally expensive and lengthy U.S. effort to train and equip a dysfunctional military and government in Iraq, the effort in Afghanistan has seen individual successes scattered along a desperate landscape. As in Iraq, the so-called Islamic State has begun to establish itself in Afghanistan as a serious extremist threat, using its tried-and-true tactics of hyper-violence and self-promotion to attract supporters seeking more than what the Taliban has been able to offer. It is this multifaceted threat—of a dysfunctional bureaucratic system unable to address societal needs while fighting a formidable Taliban insurgency, a shadow government, and now two iterations of al-Qaeda—that has forced the U.S. to extend its current mission indefinitely.
It will likely be the combined efforts of U.S. Special Forces, with the relatively well-trained and regarded (though limited in numbers) Afghan counterterrorism forces, that will prove most effective against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The recent raid in southern Afghanistan that revealed two massive al-Qaeda training camps should remind that, even with the current force levels and capabilities in the country, al-Qaeda was able to reestablish the exact type of camps from which sprang the 9/11 attacks. During his announcement of the mission extension, President Obama evoked the mantra ‘Never Again’ to preventing Afghanistan from serving as a terrorist sanctuary. This has proved to be as difficult to accomplish in Afghanistan as it has in other places with similarly deep-seated challenges.
There will be more intense fighting ahead for the Afghan security forces and the civilians who have shouldered horrendous losses in defending their country against so many determined and capable foes. The decision for the U.S. to continue to assist the Afghan people in their thirty-year war is likely the least bad of several terrible choices. That does not mean, however, that it will succeed when so many enormous internal and external factors are bleeding the country dry.
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