Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off 15 years ago on October 7, 2001; today, roughly 8,400 U.S. and NATO troops are still engaged in assisting Afghan partner forces in their war against resurgent militant threats. As a stark reminder of the dangerous landscape that exists in Afghanistan, two American Special Forces soldiers were killed recently while assisting Afghan commando forces in an operation to thwart a Taliban offensive on Kunduz city.
Despite the large presence of U.S. forces and continuing combat operations, the U.S. presidential candidates only mentioned the impoverished, war-torn region once in three debates. Now, President-elect Trump will inherit America’s longest military conflict and will be faced with many distinct challenges. At the top of the list is the very real possibility that political complacency could turn the region into a hotbed for al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) offshoots and potentially waste more than $600 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent to rebuild Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) is neither unified nor does it truly resemble effective governance. Brokered by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 after a contentious election, the NUG has limped on, plagued by infighting and constitutional wrangling over powers associated with the chief executive officer (CEO), a position held by Abdullah Abdullah. In addition, vacancies within major security institutions and government departments have dampened the country’s ability to govern, let alone effectively direct a war against the Taliban.
Frustrations over the NUG appeared to boil over in August when Abdullah exclaimed that Ashraf Ghani was “unfit to be president” in a public speech. Central in the fight between Abdullah and Ghani is the constitutional question over the created post of CEO. Abdullah’s position continues to operate without real constitutional authority, and the NUG hangs together by mere strands of support from the international community and a plethora of international donors, who just last month, pledged nearly $15 billion in aid to Afghanistan through 2020. Unfortunately, given the current environment, this aid could very well disappear as frustrated donors begin to demand Afghan government reforms in exchange for further financial assistance. Arguably, as infighting continues unabated, a real crisis of governance could collapse the Afghan government.
An Overstretched Military
On the military front, the Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since their ouster in 2001. According to a recent report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “approximately 63.4 percent of the country’s districts are under Afghan government control or influence as of August 28, 2016, a decrease from the 65.6 percent reported as of May 28, 2016.” However, according to General John Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, those districts under Afghan government control contain the majority of the Afghan population, roughly 70 percent.
The Resolute Support mission, which is responsible for training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces, maintains that control of key population centers by security forces is a hallmark of success. Indeed, Taliban militants failed in 2016 to capture a provincial capital — a stated goal of the militants’ organization — during the spring offensive dubbed Operation Omari, named after the late reclusive Taliban leader.
However, despite the optimistic rhetoric emanating from Resolute Support and U.S. officials, six major provincial capitals are either currently under siege by Taliban militants or are under threat of collapse. Also, Afghan forces have successfully defended provincial capitals, but at a significant cost, with nearly 15,000 casualties among Afghan security forces and 5,100 civilians killed or maimed in the conflict this year, according to a report issued by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Because much of the regular Afghan army and police force are viewed as ineffective or corrupt, Afghan commando forces are overly relied upon to conduct operations that are not necessarily in the purview of their mission statement. Overused and overstretched, the roughly 11,000 strong Afghan commando force has been at the forefront of most major operations, including staving off collapses in Kunduz, Farah, and Lashkar Gah. The overuse and misalignment of resources not only threatens to exhaust the force, but could potentially result in their collapse and the subsequent downfall of the regular Afghan army, as well.
This scenario is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. As Soviet aid evaporated, Afghanistan’s central government no longer became the standard bearer for aid and welfare disbursement, resulting in a chaotic zero-sum game between warlords. The resulting calamity witnessed factions under General Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Attah Noor, and Hekmatyar Gulbuddin turn their guns on Kabul. The ensuing civil war would bring rise to the Taliban..
In the current context, should the central government collapse, Afghanistan would descend into another violent civil war with familiar faces at the helm; it would also open the door to a multitude of militant and terrorist groups seeking footholds to establish a stable base of operations. A collapse of the central government would likely usher in a rapid withdrawal of international organizations and foreign military assistance, as Western capitals frustrated with Kabul’s progress are already faced with overstretched budgets and a bellicose Russia banging at the door.
Despite the rather tenuous situation, there are certain encouraging signs on the horizon, revolving around Afghanistan serving as an economic bridge. Afghanistan’s tax revenue increased 22 percent compared to last year as a result of increased economic activity — a positive indicator for Afghanistan as it seeks to become more self-sufficient from international donor aid. And Ghani has bolstered internationalism as a core tenet of his administration, seeking development and economic contracts with Iran and India at the port of Chabahar; construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline; and development of a rail line from Nantong, China to Hairitan, Afghanistan.
International cooperation and friendly relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors have been a hallmark of Ghani’s administration, as he seeks to ameliorate tensions in the region by emphasizing shared interests. Though Afghanistan is still heavily dependent on foreign aid, seeking self-sufficiency is a positive step to bypass a repeat of the horrors of the civil war in the 1990s.
The conflict in Afghanistan is convoluted to say the least. The battlefield includes an array of actors: self-interested warlords seeking rents from Kabul; Taliban militants determined to collapse the central government; terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS; foreign powers utilizing the region to fulfill strategic military goals; and even government officials vying for donor aid.
Balancing the key interests of major players in Afghanistan will prove to be an exceedingly difficult challenge for the new U.S. administration. The first round of peace talks in September of this year witnessed the sidelining of Pakistan from the negotiations, as mistrust over Pakistan’s courting of Haqqani militants has strained relations with the U.S. and Afghan governments. However, any negotiation will inevitably involve Islamabad, as the Pakistani government still holds immense influence over the militant group, as highlighted by the recent Taliban delegation visit to Islamabad.
How the U.S. and Afghan governments navigate this complex terrain will be key to any successful negotiation, as will acknowledging the interests of key stakeholders while ensuring Kabul doesn’t implode over internal disputes and constitutional wrangling.
By the spring of 2017, the winter snows in the Afghan mountains will melt away, prompting a new fighting season. The Trump administration will need to hit the ground running in Afghanistan. There is still potential for Afghanistan to reach some semblance of peace and stability, as evidenced by progress in the platform for internationalism and negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government that have commenced recently in Doha, Qatar. The new administration has the ability to capitalize on some of Afghanistan’s progress by maintaining support to the Afghan military, engaging key stakeholders, and spearheading Afghanistan’s international efforts to cultivate shared economic interests with its neighbors, ensuring the landlocked nation does not revert back into a cycle of warlordism, instability and a safe haven for terrorist groups. Now is not the time to abandon Afghanistan.
Shawn Snow is a specialist in the political and military developments of Central and Southwest Asia focused primarily on the conflict in Afghanistan. He previously served as a signals intelligence analyst with 1st Marine Special Operations Command and as a foreign language interpreter. He completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan.