America’s pullout from Afghanistan, after 14 long years of battling insurgents, isn’t proceeding as quickly as the White House had anticipated. In a reversal, U.S. military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad, where some of the fiercest fighting in the country has taken place, are likely to stay in service through the end of 2015, and potentially well into next year.
The news comes with President Ashraf Ghani deep into a crucial visit in Washington. On Monday, Ghani conferred with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew at President Barack Obama’s retreat at Camp David. Carter promised to continue funding Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) into 2017. Ghani will speak with Obama at the White House on Tuesday before making an address to Congress Wednesday.
That warmth is uncharacteristic of the Obama Administration’s relationship with Kabul. U.S.-Afghan relations were fraught with trouble under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who once implied that American troops in Afghanistan were colluding with the Taliban to cause trouble. The improved relationship has real consequences for the American mission: the White House announced Tuesday it will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015.
Halting the closure of outposts in Kandahar and Jalalabad will add weight to that move. An incubator for many of the insurgents that plague Afghanistan, Kandahar has been a haven for rival tribes with a history of political and cultural grievances. The base is a crucial supply point for the nascent Afghan Air Force, which is having trouble maintaining American aircraft gifted by the Pentagon, and also supports a smaller network of forces in the region. Jalalabad, given its proximity to Pakistan, has proven critical in combating Taliban strongholds to the East.
But the move still signals a shift in America’s involvement in Afghanistan. China and Pakistan, not the U.S., have taken the lead in promoting peace talks with the Taliban, which look to move forward in the next several months. Although Kerry flew out to Kabul in August of last year to broker an election deal between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah — who is now the country’s chief executive — their coalition seems to be in disarray. Worse, there’s little talk of fixing it.
It’s clear the U.S. will continue to play a major role in Afghanistan through next year. It’s unclear, however, beyond training and equipping ANSF brigades at Kandahar and Jalalabad, what that role will be.