Two days after the emergence of a video depicting the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by so-called Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called a press conference to warn reporters that ISIL is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen.” The candor and urgency of his remarks contrasted with a four-sentence Department of Defense news release posted only a few hours prior. The release noted that Sergeant 1st Class Matthew Leggett had been killed in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 20, after being “engaged by the enemy.” Kabul police offered a more vivid account: as Leggett crossed a busy Kabul road to help escort his convoy, a Taliban operative slit his throat.
As the Pentagon explores all options short of “boots on the ground” for Iraq, little attention is being paid to the boots still on the ground in Afghanistan, even as weekly losses continue – including the recent loss of Major General Harold Greene, the highest ranking U.S. officer killed in combat since Vietnam. Hagel vowed in his press conference to “take a cold, steely, hard look” at the ISIL threat, but the strategic assessment for Afghanistan, where the Taliban kills aid workers and journalists on a monthly basis, seems to have concluded last May with a Rose Garden statement by President Barack Obama. “[T]his is how wars end in the 21st century,” he noted, as he stressed a “narrow mission” focused on “the remnants of al Qaeda.”
What remains unfinished, however, is an explanation of not only of why these phantom remnants pose a greater threat to Americans than ISIL does, but of how a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan will help defeat them. Indeed, in the minds of most Taliban-sympathizing Afghans, al Qaeda – which has not claimed responsibility for any attack in Afghanistan since 2009 – is less a varsity jihad team than a CIA concoction for justifying a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Conversely, the ISIL “junior varsity team” has rapidly secured in Mosul a writ more destructive and globally minded than that which existed in Kabul during even the most powerful days of the Taliban regime. Indeed, Iraq is quickly becoming more “Afghan” than Afghanistan itself: one Iraqi journalist recently described how new tastes for an “Afghani look” have Mosul men donning the shalwar kameez of Afghan Taliban fighters, leaving locals to ask themselves if their city has become another Kandahar.
Ironically, the selling point of the Afghanistan War strategy laid out by Obama just weeks before ISIL’s June takeover of major Iraqi cities was that it would put Afghanistan on track toward becoming another Iraq: “[B]y the end of 2016,” Obama noted, “our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.” Yet while recent events in Iraq have prompted a review of Iraq’s trajectory, U.S. policy in Afghanistan continues to muddle along.
Indeed, if ISIL’s barbarous rise and cryptic reconnaissance of targets in the U.S. is not enough to muster American’s support for returning U.S. troops to Iraq, the only explanation for U.S. support for keeping troops in Afghanistan is precisely that the mission remains muddled. While regional Islamist groups like the Quetta Shurah Taliban and the Haqqani network are responsible for most of the violence in Afghanistan today, the invocation of the “al Qaeda” bogey-man is a convenient, emotionally charged shortcut for keeping Americans on board. It is also a legal necessity, as the operative Authorization for Use of Military Force – which defines the enemy as only those who were connected to 9/11 –would not apply to a war largely focused on twenty-something Pakistani madrassa students; their strain of Deobandi Islam, while brutal, bears far less resemblance to the global jihad of the Arab 9/11 hijackers than does the Salafism of ISIL.
Unfortunately, replacing this muddling strategy with leadership would require leveling with Americans about the untidy complexity of the problem. It would require U.S. officials to be open about the corruption and sex trafficking within the Afghan government, the counter-productiveness of an international aid strategy premised on keeping poppy illegal, and the perpetually maligned role of our Pakistani “allies.” Americans might then begin to sympathize with the naiveté of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whose wandering off post in 2009, reportedly in hopes of bridging the cultural misunderstandings with the Taliban, suggests he took seriously the easy fixes of Three Cups of Tea, required Army reading at the time. Like Bergdahl, Americans continue to underestimate the complexity of a problem that may not be worth solving.
Stressing the modesty of U.S. goals in Afghanistan, American officials often quip that the aim is not a “Central Asian Valhalla” (former Defense Secretary Robert Gates) or “another Switzerland” (USAID’s Afghanistan director Larry Sampler), but rather “something above Somalia but below Bangladesh” (General Stanley McChrystal). But with civilian casualties up 24 percent so far this year and the fate of the country’s first presidential transition unknown months after the election, even this low standard appears immodest. As ISIL attempts to build an Afghanistan in Iraq, the U.S. ought to reassess what it is building in Afghanistan.
Patrick Knapp is a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. He has worked in Afghanistan in a civilian capacity for an aid program in 2011, as a volunteer for a human rights organization in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in 2012, and for a Kabul-based NGO in 2013.