Updated: December 15, 2014 1:51:29 am
By Bruce Riedel
The longest war in American history is approaching its moment of truth. Next year, the American- and Nato-built Afghan army will face Pakistani-backed Taliban insurgents with only modest and decreasing foreign assistance. President Barack Obama has promised even that small troop presence will end by 2017. He needs to revisit this decision.
From January 2015, Nato will have 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which 10,800 will be Americans. Germany will be the second-largest troop contributor with 850, and Italy third with 500. The US force total is scheduled to drop to 5,500 by the end of 2015 and to near zero by the end of 2016. Obama has already slowed the withdrawal once, keeping an extra 1,000 troops next year than originally planned, and expanding their mission beyond training and advising the Afghans to include some combat roles, especially air support.
The president’s decision this past spring to publicly lay out his timeline for ending American troop involvement on the ground is widely regarded as a mistake in Washington. It gave the enemy unnecessary insight into our war plans and confidence that it could out-wait American resolve. Many fear it will lead to a repeat of the Iraq disaster, where the Iraqi army collapsed last summer without US support and lost Mosul to the Islamic State, forcing a very reluctant Obama to send troops back to Baghdad. But the White House has not changed the endgame plan so far.
Washington and Kabul have both sought to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support to the Afghan Taliban this fall. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was in Washington last month, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to improve ties. Shortly after the army chief’s visit, the Pakistan army announced it had killed a Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda operative in counter-terrorism operations near the Afghan-Pakistan border. This is a familiar pattern in US relations with Pakistan — an Arab terrorist is caught or killed just before or after a high-level bilateral meeting.
But the real problem has not changed: Pakistani support for the Taliban insurgency. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has been providing the Taliban with safe haven and sanctuary in Pakistan for over a decade. The ISI participates directly in planning Taliban operations and target selection against Nato and Afghan targets. It helps arm and fund the Taliban and assists its fundraising efforts in the Gulf states.
Mullah Omar, the shadowy leader of the Taliban who calls himself commander of the faithful, divides his time between Quetta and Karachi, where the ISI provides his security. The Haqqani network keeps an office in Rawalpindi near the ISI headquarters. General Sharif supervises all of this, just as his predecessors did before him. The general, not the prime minister, makes Afghan policy.
As former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on his first visit to India since leaving office, Pakistan remains the Taliban’s patron and safe haven, while demanding that Kabul reduce India’s presence in Afghanistan. Offers to train Afghan officers in Pakistan are only for public relations consumption. The army’s goal in Afghanistan is victory and the creation of a puppet state in Kabul. That has been the goal since at least when Zia-ul-Haq took power in his coup.
The question is, will the Afghan army hold together when the allies leave, or will it fragment in the face of Taliban offensives? This winter’s Taliban offensive has undoubtedly been planned with ISI help and direction. The ISI has a long history of poor intelligence predictions and flawed analysis, so it probably overestimates the Taliban’s capabilities and underestimates Afghan resolve and determination to resist. The generals may be misleading themselves about their Taliban client’s prospects, but they show no sign of stopping or reducing their assistance.
Obama should revisit his timeline and endgame. Washington should let conditions on the ground determine US policy and presence in Afghanistan, not the electoral calendar in America. Even if there is no need for troops to assist in fighting the Taliban, there will clearly be a need for an American counter-terrorism capability, including drones and special forces, to deal with al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The Afghans will need American air support for years to come, given the slow development of an Afghan air force.
Ghani should invite India to do more as well. India could send military field hospitals and army medical teams, as it did in the Korean War to help the UN forces. It could provide trainers and advisors for the Afghan army and air force. Its already substantial economic aid projects, including road construction, should be expanded. Indian diplomacy should weigh-in with Pakistan’s allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to press Pakistan to cut its ties to the Taliban.
The decisive moment in this very long conflict is coming. The outcome is not yet decided. Washington, Kabul and New Delhi need to ensure a responsible endgame by working together, with no illusions about Islamabad’s role.
The writer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, is author, most recently, of ‘What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89’
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