AMU Homeland Security Opinion

Afghanistan: The Forgotten Conflict

By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

Throughout the presidential campaign, all the candidates have been asked how they would defeat ISIS, but the one area missing from the equation, with regard to foreign policy, is how they would deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, USA Today reported that news from Afghanistan in 2015, when American troops ended their daily combat mission after 14 years, has been grim. Taliban insurgents stormed the northern provincial capital of Kunduz in October, and were pushed out after fierce fighting that included an inadvertent attack by a U.S. warplane on a hospital, that killed 42 civilians. In the south, Taliban insurgents have battered Afghan troops in Helmand province; an al-Qaeda training camp was also discovered there and destroyed. Islamic State fighters have set up outposts in the east, and last week six U.S. airmen were killed by a suicide bomber outside Bagram Air Base.

The top U.S. commander Army Gen. John Campbell in Afghanistan stated that maintaining the force of 9,800 troops in training Afghan forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations is vital to the stabilization of country, and any reduction should be put off to a later time.

“My intent would be to keep as much as I could for as long as I could,” Campbell said by telephone from Kabul. “At some point it becomes physics. I’m going to have to get them out.”

Campbell is also contemplating asking for additional U.S. forces to bolster an already tenues situation, but again, like in Iraq and Syria, what is the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan?

This is not something where the military can dictate a strategy, as the Pentagon only implements the political strategy directed to them by Washington. One again only has to remember the axiom articulated by Clausewitz, “”War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”

Again, what is the political strategy for Afghanistan?

President Obama campaigned that he would end two wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq against his military commanders who wanted to leave a residual force behind. This lack of strategic understanding, resulted in Iraq metastasizing into a semi-failed state, coincided with the civil war in Syria and thus allowing ISIS to establish territorial sanctuary and spread its tentacles throughout the Middle East region.

In October, President Obama was forced to re-evaluate his earlier campaign promise and leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, eventually drawing down to 5,500 by the time he leaves office. Unfortunately, the situation has grown steadily worse since then, forcing the president to alter his calculation and not have a replication of the situation in Iraq.

This month General Campbell travels to Washington to have discussions with President Obama and his national security team, but beyond continuing the same course, there has to be a defined strategy (which the U.S. has not had in Afghanistan).

Since military operations began in Afghanistan in 2002, the Bush administration had never articulated a coherent strategy for defeating the Taliban and other terror organizations before it pivoted to Iraq.

President Obama came into office promising to end the two conflicts, but eventually the situation on the ground forced him to surge additional U.S. forces into Afghanistan, first in the spring of 2009, and then a much larger contingent of troops in 2010. The unfortunate aspect of the president’s surge of U.S. forces is that he never believed in his own strategy.

Writing in his memoirs, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in both the Bush and Obama administrations, stated that the president did not believe in his own strategy, and for him it was all about getting out.

The question General Campbell will face as he heads to Washington is that the U.S. doesn’t have a strategy for Afghanistan.

A report released by the Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concluded that the United States has no declared strategy and shows no signs of trying to implement one. It has slowly extended its military mission, and seems to have increased its use of air power, but it has never declared any overall strategy for dealing with the Taliban and other hostile elements that make up the insurgent threat, to the government. Simply extending the train and assist mission without any net assessment of its impact has not been a strategy; it has proved to be more a way of passing responsibility on to the next administration in the form of a legacy that is little more than a poison pill.

Last month the Department of Defense issued a report on the situation in Afghanistan, which highlighted the fact that Afghan forces were unprepared and not ready for the sudden departure of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) forces at the tactical level, which coincided with the disunity inside the Afghan government and impacting the Afghan military.

The report focuses on the tactical level, and again highlights that there is no strategic strategy for Afghanistan, and one does not appear to be forthcoming any time soon, especially in the midst of the U.S. presidential election.

As each of the candidates vying for the presidency need to be asked, and should be expected to address, what their strategy for Afghanistan would be. Whoever assumes the office of president in 2017 will be addressing Afghanistan whether they like it or not.

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