Country Brief: Afghanistan
Afghanistan has had a tumultuous modern history. In the mid-1990s, Taliban warlords took power after a messy Afghan civil war, bringing repressive rule and a safe haven for Al Qaeda. After 9/11, the U.S. drove out Al Qaeda and the Taliban government. But beginning in late 2002, the U.S. diverted its attention and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, letting the security situation in Afghanistan atrophy. In 2004, with the election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, soaring corruption, narcotics trafficking and a violent Taliban insurgency, maintaining the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership became increasingly difficult.1
In 2009, President Obama steered U.S. focus back from Iraq to Afghanistan, sending a “surge” of 33,000 American troops to suppress the raging Taliban insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan. Taliban attacks nevertheless increased during the surge years.2
In 2014, at the end of President Karzai’s tenure, the U.S. helped mediate a power-sharing deal in a national unity government between the top candidates, now-President Ashraf Ghani and Abdallah Abdullah, the now-Chief Executive Officer.3 After years of struggle with an increasingly difficult Karzai, Ghani, a technocrat with an American doctorate and decades of experience as an academic and World Bank staffer, appears to be a more promising partner for the U.S. and the other regional players that will have to be part of a negotiated settlement. He signed a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. on September 30, 2014, one day after being inaugurated.4
On January 1, 2015, NATO ground forces (International Security Assistance Force or ISAF) officially ended their combat mission in Afghanistan, replacing it with a train-and-advise mission known as Operation Resolute Support (ORS). ORS has 12,905 NATO troops, of which 6,800 are Americans.5 The U.S. has a total of 9,800 combat troops currently deployed to Afghanistan.6 That number was scheduled to fall to 5,500 by the end of 2016. In July, President Obama announced that 8,400 combat troops would remain in Afghanistan through January 2017, adapting to the security situation on the ground and ensuring the country doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists.7
Still, past experience suggests that America must continue to help Afghanistan provide for its own security.
An end to the combat mission should not mean that the U.S. will turn its backs on Afghanistan. The U.S. should continue to help Afghanistan improve its own security forces and governance capabilities. Complete disengagement could risk a return of chaos and give rise to terrorist safe havens.
- Late 1980s: After the Soviets ended their decade-long occupation in Afghanistan, the U.S. stopped arming mujahideen insurgents and turned away as the country fell into civil war.
- 2003-2009: The U.S. focused more on the Iraq war effort than responsibly overseeing Afghanistan’s war.
- Post-2011 Iraq: Iraq and Afghanistan are very different contexts, but the Iraqi unraveling after U.S. withdrawal provides a cautionary tale. Iraq’s lack of political accountability, massive corruption, and ineffective national military are components that could easily undermine a post-war Afghanistan.
International disengagement may produce another Afghan civil war or a regional proxy war. This is why the U.S. must continue to carefully monitor the geopolitical situation in and around Afghanistan. Also, Afghans must understand that the military transition doesn’t mean disengagement, and that there is non-military supports the U.S. will continue to provide.
Congress should seriously consider the recommendations made by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)—particularly related to financial oversight and anti-corruption efforts.8 Congress can also offer incentives where possible to help bolster the Afghan army and curb the chances of troop recidivism.
Despite considerable challenges, Afghanistan’s new government appears to be a more pragmatic, cooperative partner for the U.S., and key regional actors, than Karzai's.
As many analysts have warned, Afghanistan faces a huge fiscal gap,9 relying on foreign aid for at least 50 percent of its gross national income.10 President Ghani understands this, emphasizing in his 2014 (and also 2009) presidential bids the importance of government economic investment and the related conditions needed to achieve it: transparency, accountability, strong infrastructure, and a merit-based political system.
Ghani is a well-respected academic and development expert who studied and lived in the U.S. for two decades.11 His deep familiarity with international organizations and long-time experience as a technocrat should provide a firm basis on which to understand Afghanistan’s considerable economic and governance challenges. He’s also showing that he understands the pragmatic approach necessary to oversee meaningful Afghan governance reform.
Both Ghani and Abdallah agree that they must confront the rampant patronage and corruption endemic in Afghanistan’s government. Within Ghani’s first 100 days in office, he visited the western region of Herat to investigate corruption complaints, firing two dozen high-level, well-connected bureaucrats and police chiefs on the spot, and announced that they will be prosecuted.12 He did this to send the message that he’s serious about cutting out the corrupt leaders that Afghans are used to.
The White House is rightly committed to drawing down, but it needs some flexibility to adapt to the security situation in Afghanistan and consider President Ghani’s personal requests for additional support.
After 15 years fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. commanders agree that the war won’t end on the battlefield but in some sort of peace deal at the negotiating table.13 President Ghani understands this but has requested "some flexibility in the [U.S.] troop drawdown timeline."14
Afghanistan’s National Security Force (ANSF) and olice have grown considerably over the last decade. But after massive U.S. investments to train and equip them, ANSF and the police still lack our sophisticated counterterrorism tools, not to mention the kind of airpower needed to effectively respond to Taliban insurgent attacks. For much of 2014, the under-resourced Afghan forces suffered heavy losses in battles with the Taliban, who’ve sought to reassert control in their traditional stronghold regions. In addition, about 3,700 Afghan civilians died last year, marking a 25 percent jump from 2013 and the deadliest year for Afghans since 2002.16
Without undermining a responsible drawdown, Americans should be sensitive to Ghani’s explicit requests, given the huge challenges that he is inheriting. This would buy him some badly needed time to strengthen his unity government, giving him a better chance of suppressing Taliban resurgence and stabilizing the security situation.
Afghanistan remains a serious geopolitical challenge with few simple solutions. The U.S. is finally drawing down its military forces, but must continue to remain flexible enough to address the new Afghan government's personal requests for some continued support.