U.S. soldiers board an Air Force C-130 as they depart Afghanistan. Image: U.S. Department of Defense

General Joseph Dunford, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, has recently told the New York Times that America’s “presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.” His reasoning was that although the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are bearing the brunt of fighting, “at the end of 2014, [they] won’t be completely independent” operationally and logistically.

Since the Obama Administration is already considering either a “zero option”—whereby there will be no American troops after 2014—or an earlier withdrawal, General Dunford’s plea for America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan will not likely be taken seriously. For one, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 67 percent of Americans surveyed believe that the Afghan War is not worth fighting. Moreover, the recent video conference between President Obama and President Karzai proved that their relationship has deteriorated considerably due to lack of trust and miscommunication.


A U.S. Army captain, center, speaks with an Afghan army officer, left, during a patrol break June 15 in Afghanistan’s Najgarhar province. (Sgt. Margaret Taylor/U.S. Army)

Yet, the issue of what the United States should do in Afghanistan is still intensely debated among foreign policy mavens. Dov S. Zakheim, a former Department of Defense official, argues that the “nature of commitment in absence of a troop presence” may deal a blow to ISAF’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, and may even take away “incentives” from the Taliban “to pursue talks with the Afghan government.” Ryan Evans, Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest, also sees the strained relationship between the Obama and Karzai administrations as “a consequence of larger problems in the U.S.-Afghan relationship…[which] stem[med] from President Obama’s misprioritization of U.S. aims in Afghanistan.” While Evans does not rule out a settlement with the Taliban, he believes that it must be done in such a way that does not “obfuscate” America’s continued presence in Afghanistan past 2014 to contain terrorist networks and to provide stability in Af-Pak. To these arguments must also be added another possible “game-changer.” In the wake of Hassan Rowhani’s landslide victory as Iran’s new president, some foreign policy mavens nowenvision a positive shift in favor of America’s primacy in the Greater Middle East, and to a lesser extent, its prosecution of war against terror.

Whatever the case may be, two things are clear. First, in the face of grim fiscal realities, the United States must fight smarter to contain terrorist networks. Second, the United States should allow the Afghan people to figure out for themselves how they want to live.

With respect to the first, the United States can successfully contain terrorist networks without massive troop presence in Af-Pak. In the face of drastic sequestration cuts in the upcoming fiscal years, it makes sense to work with whosoever will rule Afghanistan while adopting selective targeting of America’s adversaries. Thus, in addition to unilaterally employing SOF (Special Operations Forces) commandos and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to track and kill terrorists, the United States can, assuming that the Taliban returns to power, establish a good rapport with the Taliban regime by “limiting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.”

As regards the second, according to Afghan journalist Ahmad Shafi, Afghan people have, thanks in no small measure to the American occupation, become integrated into the global community and have, therefore, become more sophisticated and cognizant of global affairs. In fact, Shafi wrote in June that while the Western media likes to “embellish” the threat of an impending civil war, most Afghans “‘beg to differ en masse’ on the magnitude of threat posed…by a bunch of violent extremists, whose grim visions are so far away from the realities of today’s Afghanistan.” One reason for this “discrepancy” between Western media perceptions and those of Afghan citizens, according to Shafi, is due to “radically different” political dynamics at play whereby the warlords and the Taliban find it “increasingly difficult” to connect with the new generation of Afghan citizens most of whom are under the age of 25. Simply stated, it is too early to draw premature conclusions about the supposedly ominous fate awaiting our Ngo Dinh Diem in Kabul or ordinary Afghan citizens.

Despite the gloomy assessment by General Dunford that the United States needs to extend its troop commitment past the 2014 deadline, there is little reason to worry. True, as Zachary Keck argues, “there are no ideal conclusions to the Afghan conflict available” at present. Nevertheless, the much-feared Taliban takeover may or may not take place. And even if the Taliban successfully returns to power, one way or the other, the United States can work with the fundamentalist regime to contain the international terrorist network. As to the now-common comparisons between a possible Taliban takeover and those of the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge victories in April 1975, only time can tell how the events will unfold. In the end, no matter the outcome, the Afghan citizens, as with Vietnamese and Cambodians before them, will sort out their own fate.

Note: This article was originally published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and is cross-posted with expressed permission from the said journal. Read the original post here.

Posted by Jeong Lee in Army, Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Marine Corps, Tactics
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  • RightCowLeftCoast

    On the fiscal issue, why is there not a greater discussion of the elephant in the room, the growth of federal entitlements and the reduction of defense spending as a percentage of the total federal budget. This impacts the military, its foreign affairs, and thus its allies.

    • Jeong Lee

      That much is true. I agree. Even if we want to, we cannot AFFORD TO linger in Afghanistan.

      • RightCowLeftCoast

        I agree to an extent, the Afghan campaign started off as a punitive action, something many nations have engaged in in the past. What it has become, and how the U.S. and its allies went about what it became is a matter of debate which should be analysed for decades to come. What actions could have been done differently? Would those actions result in a different outcome? What factors outside of Afghanistan (and thus outside of the influence and changeable to the U.S./NATO/Afgan forces) contributed to the result that we have seen today? I am sure there are plenty of similar questions, but they are all worth asking, and they are all worth getting honest answers least the U.S. or any other nation not learn those lessons.

      • Jeong Lee

        Those questions are worth pondering and asking yes. If you were to ask me, we could have taken police action–whereby the US and its allies could have frozen OBL’s assets or sent in SOF to hunt for OBL–and NOT invade Afghanistan. In the latter, we did succeed, and as far as that objective is concerned, it is fait accompli. How did the Taliban come back is a question we should be asking ourselves. One obvious reason would be that we were so fixated on Iraq that the war in Afghanistan sort of took a backseat as the US diverted its troops and logistics to Iraq. But even more important, we lost militarily when Tommy R. Franks and Frank Hagenbeck let OBL slip into Pakistan during the Battle of Tora Bora in 2002 (aka Operation Annaconda).


    True, American troops won’t be needed in Afghanistan after 2014. They were never needed in large numbers. The operational construct chosen for Afghanistan was terrible from the start, beginning with the desire to have a friendly US installed and supported government put in place. We would always have been better off conducting the punitive bombings and hunting the terrorists involved in 911 within Afghanistan with SOF.

    All the money spent on nation building and occupation has been wasted. We would have been better served by either having the nation disintegrate, or if a government managed to retain power, to have it and the people in fear. Fear drives compliance more than gratitude.

    We could have saved many billions and achieved a better end state by destroying the existing military infrastructure and using SOF to hunt down whomever we wanted dead. Big cash payoffs for information on foreign fighters, taking no prisoners, eliminating everyone who got in our way, using air support and an air bridge for supplies, ignoring Afghan sovereignty completely, and leaving behind a punished and chastened people.

    We did it all wrong. Apparently our plan is to continue doing it wrong hoping it will turn out right. It won’t. Our action in Afghanistan will be remembered as a failure that cost a fortune because nobody wanted to fight a war. They all wanted to build sand holes inhabited by cave people into a modern democratic nation state. It was never going to work and even if it could have it wouldn’t have been worth doing when all we really needed to do was instill some fear into everyone over there.

    Our handpicked leader over there is an ungrateful corrupt criminal who neither respects nor fears us. It’s all very pathetic and we have our senior military leaders who came up with this disaster of a plan to thank for it.

    Maybe the CIA and GAO should make all the war plans and let the military execute them. They can’t possibly do worse.

    • Jeong Lee

      Our mission was never about nation-building anyway. No, check that–occupation of a sovereign territory and installation of a refractory puppet regime. It was about hunting OBL.

      Over time, however, we clearly suffered from mission creep.

  • grandpabluewater

    We will leave. We will be back. What happens in between? Not sure.
    The intermission will be nasty, brutish and short. We can get out real soon now. In the long run it will be much more bloody, and much more expensive, but we can do it. It won’t work the way the political masters of the moment think it will. The enemy, you see, has an equal vote.
    Hard times coming….