President Obama’s wise decision to abandon his self-imposed deadline for the withdrawal of most American troops from Afghanistan needs to be linked to a wider strategy pressing Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban hardliners and press it’s client to engage in a serious political process.
The deadline set by Washington to draw down American and NATO troop strength in Afghanistan to under a thousand by the end of 2016 only encouraged the Taliban and its patrons in the Pakistani army to believe their victory was only a matter of time. Convinced that America was planning to abandon the Kabul government, the Taliban leadership and its Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) advisors have been planning a series of terror attacks and ground offensives to weaken the Afghan army and President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The takeover of Konduz, a major northern Afghan city outside the Taliban’s usual strongholds, was carefully planned and prepared for months in the Taliban’s headquarters in Quetta, Pakistan.
The Afghans loss of Konduz last month, albeit temporary, and the disastrous bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city were the final wake-up calls. No provincial capital had fallen to the Taliban since 2001 before Konduz. It’s fall briefly threatened to start a broader collapse of government control across northeast Afghanistan. It looked like a repeat of the collapse of Iraqi forces in Mosul in 2014.
Fortunately, the Afghan army backed by American Special Forces and air power stemmed the Taliban advance. Unlike the Iraqis the Afghans did not collapse. As the President rightly noted the Afghan forces have made major advances in capability and competence on his watch. But there are still major gaps, most especially in air power, that only foreign forces can fill until those gaps are filled and Afghan capability built. Building a capable modern Afghan Air Force should be our top priority. With the U.S. deadline gone, Washington can now encourage other NATO partners to stay longer and help build Afghan capabilities. Germany is a likely partner to stay.
There are also other disturbing trends. Al Qaeda, which evacuated Afghanistan in 2001 to Pakistan, has been regenerating inside Afghanistan this year at an alarming rate. Last weekend U.S. and Afghan forces carried out major military operations to destroy two significant Al Qaeda bases in southern Afghanistan. It’s a safe assumption that there are more Al Qaeda camps operating there that are not known to our intelligence yet. By keeping 5,000 or more American troops in Afghanistan the U.S. will be able to retain unilateral counter terrorist capabilities like drones that can be used both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, capabilities that keeping to the 2016 deadline would have erased.
Moreover, the new head of the Taliban, Mullah Mansour, openly accepted publicly the endorsement of Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last summer. It was an unusual public reaffirmation of their alliance. For most of the last decade the Taliban kept quiet about its ties to Al Qaeda but Mansour, who was handpicked by the ISI to replace Mullah Omar, openly welcomed Zawahiri’s pledge of loyalty.
The Islamic State is also present now in Afghanistan. It is attracting a small but potent fighting force on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Next week President Obama will meet with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Prime Minister has pushed the Taliban in the past to open a political process with the Ghani government. He understands that the ISI’s patron ship of the Taliban only encourages extremism to flourish in Pakistan. But the Prime Minister does not control his generals who remain committed to the Taliban and a military strategy. They still believe their victory is inevitable. Sharif knows the limits of his power in civil-military affairs. He spent a decade in exile when he crossed the army the last time.
Obama should work with Sharif to try to get the Taliban back to negotiations that were suspended when Mullah Omar’s death was announced. The mullah’s death in a Karachi hospital, of course, was covered up for two years by the ISI to help it keep the Taliban under their control. China, Pakistan’s major ally, is also pushing for renewed talks.The Taliban will also have to publicly repudiate any ties to Al Qaeda.
To leverage the Pakistani army it is time to make clear that continued ISI and army support to the Taliban will have a cost to the army. U.S. military assistance to the Pakistani military, which amounts to well over $25 billion since 2001, should be cut back or even suspended indefinitely. If the White House won’t do it, the Congress should. It’s long past time to stop trying to bribe the generals to stop planning attacks on American soldiers.
The next American president will inherit a situation in Afghanistan fundamentally stronger then the disaster George W. Bush left for Obama. There was virtually no capable Afghan security forces in 2009. Al Qaeda was firmly encased in Pakistan, with Osama bin Laden operating in the back yard of the Pakistani Army’s equivalent of West Point. Afghan politics were dominated by a weak regime that was undermined by Bush’s failure to resource the war. The challenges ahead remain significant but if the Taliban and ISI now realize that America is not abandoning the Afghan people and they are not going to topple Kabul, then finally a political process may begin to end the war.