By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Last week while on vacation in Hawaii, President Barack Obama addressed military personal and announced that the U.S. is officially ending its combat mission in Afghanistan.
The president stated, “We’ve been in continuous war now for more than 13 years. Next week we will be ending our combat mission in Afghanistan.”
The president continued “Because of the extraordinary service of the men and women in the Armed Forces, Afghanistan has a chance to rebuild its own country. We are safer. It’s not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again.”
Even as combat operations end the U.S., we will be leaving behind a residual force of more than 10,000 troops in a noncombat role to train and provide technical support to local security forces without engaging in direct combat, and to assist in counter terrorism operations.
With this announcement, the focus has been on the length of the conflict and the ending of U.S. combat operations, but missing from the discussion is what the strategy for Afghanistan is once U.S. combat forces leave?
In his announcement the president stated, “Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country. At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States — along with our allies and partners — will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida.”
Again the questions beg to be answered, what is the long-term strategic plan for Afghanistan, and what viable strategy does the U.S. have for Pakistan?
Prior to the attack on September 11th 2001, Afghanistan and Central Asia were largely ignored by U.S. policymakers. Even when the Taliban took power in the mid-90’s, the region was relegated to the back water by national security strategists.
Now it seems the U.S. is virtually repeating the same mistake of the past. After Russian forces were forced from Afghanistan, the United Stated failed to place a comprehensive strategy for the region, thus allowing terror organizations to fill the void.
The main goal of both the Bush and Obama administration was to destroy al-Qaida. Much of that has been accomplished; unfortunately the global leadership of the terror organization still resides inside the border region of Pakistan. It is true that they have been weakened, but they are still a presence.
A couple of key questions need to be asked before a perceptive U.S. withdrawal fails to articulate key areas.
All of the attention has been placed on the military side of the equation, but little strategic thought has been placed on how effective the Afghan government will be once U.S. troops leave the country.
In September, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani was named as Afghanistan new president, but will have to share power in an agreement with his rival Abdullah Abdullah, after a bitter election, which Abdullah claimed the process was rigged against him. Can both work together, or will the new government collapse into bitter rivalry.
How effective will the new Afghan government be when foreign aid accounts for 90 percent of the country’s gross domestic product? With foreign troops now exiting the country, economic growth has plummeted, and Kabul has little monetary resources to pay its bills. This coincides with the Afghan government’s inability to project its authority beyond the capital and out into the provinces.
The mission of U.S. forces who remain in Afghanistan is to assist local security forces without engaging in direct combat and to contribute in counter terrorism operations. If the situation is replicated from Iraq, where Afghan forces are unable to defeat the Taliban, will the U.S. then engage in combat operations?
If history is any guide to the future of Afghanistan, the central government will collapse and a civil war will ensue, but this time U.S. military forces will be in the middle. How will the U.S. respond?
Will the U.S. abruptly withdraw and allow a civil war to be fought between the various terror groups, which would inevitably spill over into Pakistan? Do we repeat what happened after the Russians left in 1989 and leave Afghanistan and the region to descend into chaos?
As the U.S. prepares to exit Afghanistan, a renewed “Great Game” is being repeated in the region, reminiscent of the 19th century between Britain and Russia. This time it is with different players, seeking dominance and influence in the region.
New power players have entered the game with China, India, Russia, Iran and other regional influences, all with divergent strategic interests, All the while Pakistan is fighting Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who wants to turn the country into an Islamic state.
The Pakistani Taliban’s attack on school in Peshawar should be a wake-up call for the U.S., especially with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile potentially falling into Islamic terrorist hands.
Whoever becomes president in 2016 will have to deal with this region, it would be nice to know what either candidate’s strategy is for the region, and hopefully we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.