Yesterday marked the 11-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, which was launched just three and a half weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Recently, U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan reached the 2,000 mark. These markers—combined with the horror of “insider attacks” by Afghan soldiers against allied fighters—beg an accounting of where we are in Afghanistan.
Within three months of the 2001 invasion, the U.S. had routed the Taliban and established an internationally backed Afghan government. But the U.S. and NATO success in the early years of the Afghan war has been diminished over the last five years. The Taliban have been able to regroup and rebound from safe havens inside Pakistan to again threaten the future of the country.
While few believe it is possible to achieve a clear-cut defeat of the Taliban at this stage, there are several things the U.S. can do to maximize the chances that Afghanistan will achieve a degree of peace and stability, even as U.S. and NATO combat troops draw down over the next two years.
Insider attacks. The most immediate challenge is to stanch the growing number of “insider attacks” that have taken nearly 52 coalition lives so far this year. The growing trend of Afghan security forces attacking their coalition partners poses the single greatest threat to the mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. strategy is centered on being able to train the Afghan forces so they can eventually face down the insurgent threat on their own.
If the number of insider attacks does not abate soon, it will be increasingly difficult not only to justify keeping combat troops in Afghanistan for two more years, but even to maintain trainers. The U.S. and NATO leadership are taking steps to deal with the situation, such as improving screening and vetting of recruits, monitoring and counterintelligence, and using “guardian angels” to protect the coalition troops.
Part of the problem has stemmed from recruiters cutting corners on vetting to meet ambitious benchmarks for increasing Afghan troop levels. There are conflicting reports about whether most of the insider attacks stem from Taliban infiltration, cultural disconnects between NATO and Afghan forces, or general war fatigue fueling indiscipline among the rank and file. Until the NATO and Afghan leadership can determine the exact cause behind the attacks, they will have little success in countering the threat.
Pakistan’s safe havens. Washington must be willing to use sticks, not just carrots, to convince Pakistan to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries inside its territory. Despite America’s provision of upwards of $22 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan over the last decade, Islamabad continues to turn a blind eye—and even support in some cases—the Taliban and Haqqani Network fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.
In a September 13 congressional hearing, Congressman Jerry Connolly (D-VA) declared the Haqqani Network “operates with impunity in certain parts of Pakistan with the absolute knowledge of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),” and argued the U.S. needed to “wrestle this issue to the ground if this relationship with the government of Pakistan is to proceed in any kind of healthy, normal fashion.” None of the expert witnesses at the hearing, including myself, disagreed with the Congressman’s assertions.
Be realistic about the Taliban. U.S. officials must not pin false hopes on an illusory reconciliation process merely to justify troop withdrawals. The Administration has pursued talks with the Taliban over the last couple of years and came close to releasing five top Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison earlier this year as a confidence-building measure—without any commitment from the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda or to participate in a normal political process. This would have been a disastrous and unmerited concession to the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban has calculated it can simply wait out the U.S. and NATO forces and, at the same time, extract concessions from U.S. officials desperate to strike a deal.
Transition to Afghan security. As my colleague Luke Coffey recently argued, NATO must continue to focus on a gradual transition and not start rushing for the exits. Currently, the Afghans have the lead on security for more than 75 percent of the country’s population, and the goal of full transition is on target for the end of 2014. NATO members and coalition partners should not use progress as an excuse to leave Afghanistan prematurely. Any withdrawal of NATO forces should be based on improved conditions on the ground and on military advice. The 2010 Lisbon Declaration stated that the “transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of ISAF-troops.”
While the elimination of Osama bin Laden and his top deputies over the past year and half signaled major strides against the terrorism threat emanating from South Asia, it is wrong to assume that the fight against global terrorism is over and that the U.S. can simply turn its attention away from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Documents found at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound last year demonstrated how important the war in Afghanistan is to al-Qaeda’s global agenda.
Even as the U.S. draws down combat operations, it should remain closely engaged with Afghanistan financially, diplomatically, and even militarily through counterterrorism and training missions long past 2014. The challenges to stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring it never again becomes a base for international terrorists are immense but not insurmountable.
We must continue to support those Afghans working for a better future for their country even as we wind down combat operations. As discouraging as the news can sometimes appear, U.S. officials cannot escape the reality that the security of the U.S. homeland is inextricably linked to the future of Afghanistan.