As the world is fixated on President Trump’s decision to pull all 2,000 US troops from Syria because of the near defeat of ISIS, the mainstream media seems to have shied away from the conflict that brought us into this seemingly never ending war agaisnt Islamic terrorism: Afghanistan.
Overshadowed by his Syria announcement, President Trump also announced that he would be pulling roughly half of the 14,000 troops startioned in Afghanistan. It has been four years since the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, which brought us into Afghanistan following the 9/11 terror attacks. This was followed by the more subdued Operation Resolute Support initiated by President Obama. US and coalition troops mainly act in training and advisory roles with a few thousand designated towards counter terrorism operations. However, the operations have proven to be less than successful, and the Taliban, as well as ISIS's new Afghanistan branch have begun to take back the ground that US, Afghan and coalition troops fought and died to seize.
Operation Resolute Support mission is to advise, assist and train the Afghan National Army (ANA). According to official NATO numbers, the operation consists of about 17,000 coalition troops, about 8,500 of which are American. Note that there are more roughly 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan, but 5,500 are not listed by NATO as a number of these are specified for counter-terror operations. The details are slim and hard numbers aren't released to the public.
The major hurdle of this operation is having success training the ANA, which has had low morale, and nearly no sense of dedication to conducting successful military operations. In addition to this, they have a very high casualty rate in confrontations with the Taliban. An average of 57 a day were killed in 2018. The Afghan military command and leadership is riddled with corruption and political interference. This often leads to politicans within the equally corrupt Afghan Government to appoint incomptetent military leaders that aren't capable of conducting military operations in a proper manner. Additionally, the ANA has been rife with Taliban infiltrations which has led to numerous NATO casualties.
The biggest hurdle that hinders NATO's ability to successfully train a united Afghan military is the fact that Afghanistan is a tribal nation, where the people have more of a sense of loyalty to their tribe than that of the actual country itself. The Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks as well as numerous others have had ages-old tribal fueds which hamper the ability for them to unite against groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and as of recent, ISIS. This has led to numerous setbacks in military operations, high levels of desertion and in recent months, the loss of land to the Taliban. We saw this with the loss of the major city of Kunduz to Taliban forces in September of 2015. Fortunately, the ANA was able to recapture the city the following month, but only with heavy assistance from US forces.
The Taliban, while having the advantage of a weak Afghan Army and the US pulling the bulk of its troops out, has also had a number of setbacks of its own. Its longtime leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was announced dead in July 2015 by the Taliban's Quetta Shura, or religious council. The only strange factor was that in the announcement, it was said he had died two years earlier. This was to keep the group from fragmenting into factions, which was exactly what happened once the news became public. Because of Mullah Omar's reclusive behavior, it was easy for the Quetta Shura to keep the fact that he had died hidden for so long. The new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour (who was later killed in May 2016 in a US drone strike and replaced by and even more obscure leader) was not popular among many within the Taliban, which led to the splintering of the organization. This allowed ISIS to take a foothold in the country.
Disgruntled members of the Taliban, as well as members of other Islamic Terror groups have pledged alliegence to ISIS. The Taliban's fractured leadership and infighting allowed for ISIS to offer an alternative option to disillusioned jihadists. Knowing the gains that ISIS had made it Syria, Iraq, and Libya, it was easy for many fighters to abandon the white flag of the Taliban and adopt the black flag of ISIS. Now, ISIS has largely been defeated in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Their presence in Afghanistan is still sizable but dwindling as the Taliban assert their power in the wake of the Afghan government and military’s fragility. This shouldn’t be overlooked as the group still remain a viable threat and should be dealt with accordingly.
In the midst of the new peace negotiations to end the 17 year old war, the Trump Administration must ensure a clean pullout of the war that most Ameicans have grown weary of. While General Stanley Mcrystal’s criticism of President Trump’s decision to halve the amount of US troops in the nation could have been far more constructive and less confrontational, there is some merit in his statements. Gen. Mcrystal’s warning of pulling out too hastily during sensitive power sharing negotiaions with the Taliban should be taken into consideration.
President Trump’s decision to select vetern diplomat and Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad was solid and his spearheading of the negotiations between the relevant parties is promising. In these delecate nagotiations, we must ensure that any decision to allow the Taliban back into the political framework of Afghan Government doesn’t empower them to the point where they attempt to make a power grab. This could lead to the reassertion of the type of rule that Afghanistan was subjected to by the group from 1996-2001.
The Afghan government controls roughly 55.5 percent of Afghan territory, as of mid-2018 while the Taliban’s grip over territory has increased to around 40 percent according to the US Military. We must make sure that we do not pull out troops too hastily, without leaving behind a discaplined, trained and effective Afghan National Army to combat the Taliban, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups. We saw this with in Iraq back in 2011, when our forces were pulled out too hastily, leaving behind a poorly trained, undiscaplined Iraqi military that was unable to maintain stability. This led to Iran exploiting the weaknesses in the Iraqi Government, the rise of ISIS and US forces having to return. Afghanistan is even more of a polarized, sectarian nation than Iraq. If the US doesn't construct a plan of action that address the tribal differences among ANA troops and leave behind a stable Afghan military and government, then we could very well leave behind the opportunity for another al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a training ground to plan another 9/11.
While everyone has grown tired of the longest war in US history, we must ensure we leave behind a stable situation that does not draw us back in like what happened with Iraq and the rise of ISIS, or else all that we have fought for since 9/11 will have been for nothing.