Assessing Afghan Future as U.S. Announces Troop Reduction

In May, President Obama announced that 9,800 American soldiers will remain in Afghanistan in 2015 – a significant troop reduction from the current level of 32,000. This residual force, in conjunction with more than 2,000 NATO troops, will continue training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and engaging in counterterrorism operations, both of which are essential for safeguarding Afghanistan’s political transition into the post-Karzai era.

This commitment jells with the recommendations of the current top brass, as well as of independent assessments.

According to a hefty report by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) – released this February – the ANSF, despite significant progress, possesses several weaknesses. These forces, which primarily include the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) and number over 350,000, still require international assistance with air support, logistics, interagency communication, and intelligence gathering and analysis.

The report also noted budgetary and administrative deficiencies with the country’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Interior (MoI) that justify a prolonged multilateral partnership.

The U.S. will dedicate 8,000 soldiers to training the ANSF in the country’s south and east, the two most embattled regions in the country. The Italians will help forces in the west, the Germans – in the north, and the Turks – in the capital Kabul.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is confident that, with the U.S.’s majoritarian contribution, there will be a large enough presence in the country to sufficiently train and upgrade the ANSF’s capabilities.

The remaining 1,800 American troops will engage in counterterrorism operations. Despite al-Qaeda having suffered significant blows, especially from targeted drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, the terrorist organization is gradually re-planting itself on Afghan soil since its expulsion in 2001. It is particularly established in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan under the leadership of Farouq al Qahtani, who heads Lashkar al Zil – the Shadow Army.

This fighting force, which cooperates with other jihadist groups that exploit the mountainous yet porous border with Pakistan, is responsible for attacks on civilian and security forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as across Afghanistan’s restive southeastern provinces, including Paktika, Ghazni, Paktiya, and Zabul.

The Taliban’s persistent affiliation with al-Qaeda continues to frustrate peace talks that could end America’s longest war.

In June 2013, the U.S. and the Taliban initiated diplomatic talks in Qatar. However, the talks stalled quickly when the Taliban delegation opened the proceedings by invoking the anthem, flag, and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the country’s name under Taliban rule. The group also refused to renounce its support for international terrorism or its ties with al-Qaeda.

A Taliban spokesman in 2012 declared that al-Qaeda is “an example of discipline and accuracy in the execution of missions and operations entrusted to them.” Osama bin Laden pledged an oath of allegiance (called a bayat) to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s infamously aloof commander, prior to the September 11 attacks.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed optimism that the recent prisoner swap of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban members could serve as a precedent for renewed peace talks with the Taliban.

Yet hours after Hagel’s announcement, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid rebuffed this overture. “It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” he said.

Current events testify to the incommensurability of the principles and goals of the Americans and the jihadist insurgency. The Taliban and its allies continue to thwart efforts to stabilize the country and to embrace republican principles and practices. Suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and assassinations against civilians, politicians, and security forces occur on a daily basis.

Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, for instance, survived an attack on Friday, June 6 when a suicide bomber attacked his convoy, killing seven civilians and five security personnel and injuring 40 bystanders.

In April, Abdullah Abdullah received 45% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election, just shy of the requisite majority. The April election was noteworthy for its few irregularities and little violence – a major accomplishment, as the ANSF provided security to voters without NATO assistance for the first time. The April contest also revealed an eager electorate with a turnout rate of nearly 60% – comparable to American’s participation in the 2012 presidential election, despite repeated threats and attacks by the Taliban in the weeks prior to the election.

Abdullah will face off against Ashraf Ghani in the second round on June 14. Both candidates vow to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would permit the United States’ lasting presence and clarify its role and relationship with the Afghans. Current president Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, which the vast majority of tribal elders participating in a loya jirga meeting approved in November of last year.

President Obama, who has had to prepare for a “zero option” – complete withdrawal without assurances of the BSA’s enactment, won the approval of most Americans with his latest plan. While several former military leaders criticized the plan because it announces a detailed schedule for gradual disengagement – only a tiny contingent of advisors will stay behind beyond 2016 – an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 77% of Americans support the president’s decision.

This year, for the first time since its inception, a plurality of Americans (49 percent) called the war “a mistake.”

Nevertheless, progress in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion has been considerable. Average life expectancy has increased 18 years; education is up eightfold; five million Afghanis have repatriated; and there is a vibrant and informative media environment with over 50 TV stations and 150 newspapers.

The CNA report cautions that these gains are fragile, as the Taliban is expected to increase its operations between 2015 and 2018 when international forces do ultimately withdraw. The Taliban aspires to maximize its terrorizing presence – materially and psychologically – in order to gain leverage for when it and the Afghan government eventually commence negotiations and peace talks in the future.

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