In a July 2008 campaign speech on Iraq and Afghanistan, then-Senator Barack Obama began his remarks by discussing one of the United States’ greatest foreign policy achievements. The Marshall Plan was a massive investment that not only helped rebuild Europe, but laid the groundwork for the expansion of democracy and the eventual defeat of the Soviet Union. Speaking in Washington, Obama noted that George Marshall, a distinguished American statesman, asked Americans to understand the linkage between their security and prosperity and events abroad, calling on them to ask, “What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?” With his recent decision to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama will leave office with 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As he prepares to hand over America’s longest war to the next president, it’s worth asking what is needed and what can be done to bring the war to a close.
Amazingly, the U.S. has spent more in inflation-adjusted dollars in Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan. Nonetheless, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since 2001. The Islamic State has established a foothold along the eastern border with Pakistan, and last October American airstrikes destroyed “probably the largest” al-Qaeda training camp found during the war, a clear sign of the group’s continued operational capacity in the country.
Afghanistan’s National Unity Government – cobbled together by Secretary of State John Kerry in the aftermath of the highly-flawed 2014 Afghan presidential election – is viewed as weak and ineffectual, plagued by ethnic infighting and corruption. Civilian casualties continue to increase, with 2016 set to supersede 2015 as the deadliest year on record for non-combatants. After the United States has spent $8.4 billion in counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan, the country’s contribution to global opium output has risen from 70 to 90 percent. In short, the next president will be handed a profoundly unstable Afghanistan with no clear endgame for the war on the horizon.
Observers have been heavily critical of the recent announcement on troop levels, with near unanimous belief that it is a half measure with little chance of making a major impact. “The change in U.S. troop levels will not produce major improvements in Afghanistan’s security,” argued Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Concurring with Kugelman, Sarah Chayes, a former special assistant to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, averred, “The difference between 2,000 or 5,000 or 8,000 is absolutely immaterial. I think this decision is entirely aimed at the United States. If the president were to continue drawing down and if something blew up, it could be blamed on his decision to draw down.” The hawkish pundit Max Boot called the revised withdrawal plan “typical of the president’s pattern of ‘split the difference’ war-making.”
Even those who agree with the president’s decision to leave more troops in Afghanistan have been lukewarm to outwardly critical. A former senior Pentagon official who helped craft U.S. policy in Afghanistan under Obama, David Sedney, said the decision was a step in the right direction, but was “the barest of the bare minimum necessary to give Afghan and Allied forces a fighting chance in the months to come.” Commenting on remarks made by the president on the decision, Senator John McCain said in a statement that “when the president himself describes the security situation in Afghanistan as ‘precarious,’ it is difficult to discern any strategic rationale for withdrawing 1,400 U.S. troops by the end of the year.”
At the peak of the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan in 2011, Obama said that by 2014 “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.” In February 2013, the president reiterated this point: “By the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Many commentators have eviscerated the administration for telegraphing its withdrawal plans, essentially allowing the Taliban to wait it out until the United States leaves. Perhaps a larger, open-ended deployment could have helped foster a more stable and secure Afghanistan. However, in the absence of any change in Pakistani behavior, stability in Afghanistan is a pipe dream, whether there are 8,400 U.S. troops in the country or 100,000.
On July 12, Afghan presidential spokesmen Haroon Chakhansuri told the Associated Press that Kabul had no plans to revive the peace process after five meetings this year between the United States, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan, which the Taliban refused to participate in. Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s spokesman Javid Faizal accused Pakistan of failing to keep its promise to cease support for the Taliban and bring the group to the negotiating table. Pakistan “is still supporting the insurgency, providing medical facilities, training, financing, which shows they have not kept their promises to make the Taliban join the peace process,” he said.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy has come under harsh criticism in Washington in recent weeks. Speaking at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Pakistan’s role on in the war on terror, Congressman Matt Salmon said, “The United States has spent tens of billions in taxpayers’ dollars in the form of aid to Pakistan since September 11, all in the hope that Pakistan would become a partner in the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately … Pakistani military and intelligence services are still linked to terrorist groups.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad piled on at the hearing with a damning assessment of Pakistani policy. “Pakistan views the Taliban as an effective proxy to ensure Pakistani dominance over Afghanistan,” Khalilzad noted. “Islamabad also believes that continuing the war in Afghanistan will lead to a U.S. withdrawal, which would change the balance of power against the current government and in favor of its proxies. Ultimately, Pakistan seeks the overthrow of the current government in Afghanistan because it is not compliant.” For Khalilzad, “Pakistani policy is the principal cause of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.”
Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghan intelligence, released documents on July 14 that showed how Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence provides support to the Taliban and Haqqani network. “They kill us every day and commit all kinds of atrocities,” Nabil told journalists in Kabul. What’s more, after a year of reaching out to Islamabad, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that Pakistan is waging an “undeclared war” against Afghanistan. This is all more or less an open secret. Sartaz Aziz, a foreign policy adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, has admitted as much: “We have some influence over them [the Afghan Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here.”
Ultimately, the United States must force Pakistan to choose between the billions of dollars of aid and international support Washington provides or their relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqanis. Khalilzad recommends that the U.S. impose Iran-style sanctions on Islamabad and remove its “wholly inappropriate” sinecure as a major non-NATO ally. “Pakistan’s current policy and conduct would better merit its inclusion on the State Department’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism,” the former envoy argued during his Congressional testimony. Many in Congress agree and have advocated for an end to all U.S. financial assistance.
While Obama has spent his last year in office decrying Washington’s penchant for resorting to force to solve all problems, Marshall’s questions seem all the more pertinent: “What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?” To escape this policy inertia, the United States should use all the diplomatic options in its toolkit to address the leading cause of instability in Afghanistan. Absent real pressure on Pakistan, neither the Obama administration nor the next president will be able to craft any policy that has a chance of setting Afghanistan on course for security and prosperity.
Adam Gallagher is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He is a senior writer for Tropics of Meta and his work has appeared in the Huffington Post, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He can be followed on Twitter @aegallagher10.