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Panel: U.S. Will Need Clear Policy, Continued Coalition Participation In Afghanistan

Afghan Army personnel destroying an IED. Al Jazeera Photo

Afghan Army personnel destroying an IED. Al Jazeera Photo

The incoming Trump administration needs to send “a clear message of continued commitment” to the Afghan government that the United States will continue to support its decades-long struggle with the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, a former ambassador to Kabul said Wednesday.

James Cunningham, now with the Atlantic Council, told a Heritage Foundation forum that “there has not been that clarity of messaging” from the Obama administration. Such a message would also reassure the United States’ 38 coalition partners to continue their efforts to bring stability not only to Afghanistan but to the region.

“Afghanistan is an expression of the broader conflict” with Islamic extremism being waged in “a zone of crisis” stretching from North Africa to South Asia, he said.

Hamdullah Mobib, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, said he understands how his countrymen, the United States and the coalition are “weary of this fight” after 15 years, but “the rationale for United States involvement in Afghanistan remains the same” as it was following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The continuing “considerable threats from the Taliban … provide oxygen for other terrorist groups,” such as the Haqqani Network, operating from safe havens in Pakistan and now the Islamic State.

“Afghanistan and its forces alone may not be able to defeat” them, Mobib said at the Washington, D.C., think tank event.

The United States military estimates that about 10 percent of the population falls under Taliban control, 20 percent of the population live in contested areas and 70 percent of Afghanistan is under control of the National Unity Government of President Ashraf Ghani and its chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Political divisions in the unity government, though, “do have an effect on how [and where] security forces operate,” Scott Smith, senior mediation advisor for the U.N. Department of Political Affairs, said at the event.

“Afghanistan national security forces are fragile,” he said. Speaking of the 352,000 members of the defense and security forces, he added, “It’s true they held the line” in previous fights, but they still show “some serious weaknessesā€¯ such as attrition through casualties and desertion, corruption that includes selling arms to the Taliban, and low morale.

The international coalition has about 13,000 soldiers in the country providing training for the Afghans, logistics, intelligence and air support. About 6,300 come from countries other than the United States. In addition, the United States has another 2,000 service members directly engaged in military operations alongside the Afghans.

The budget request for Fiscal Year 2017 for military operations in Afghanistan is $3.5 billion. “This is what the United States spent at the height of the war every 10 days” when it had 100,000 soldiers and Marines there, said Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation. “This is a bargain.”

While the Afghans will have to work out among themselves a path to reconciliation, the fact that Pakistan continues to harbor terrorist groups such as the Haqqanis complicates the matter.

Cunningham bluntly put it: “What we’re doing in Pakistan … isn’t working.” Quoting retired Army Gen. Jack Keane’s recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said as long as those safe havens exist the chances of ending the fighting are “dismal to non-existent.”

Coffey said, “In the North [of Afghanistan], we’ve seen an increase in fighting” created as Pakistan moved against terrorists it felt threatened its own stability. As a result, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a regional Uzbek leader and vice president in the national government, “has gone rogue” trying to cement his power base there. The fighting in the north has spurred a reaction in Moscow, with the Russians offering to help defend Tajikistan’s borders with Afghanistan. Tajikistan was a republic in the former Soviet Union.

There also has been a fragmentation of international cooperation in addressing terrorism in the region generally and Afghanistan particularly. Smith said Russia, China and Pakistan are falling into one bloc with different aims than the Afghans and the larger coalition. Moscow has opened its own talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban remains strongest in the country’s southern provinces with its large Pashtun population, the ethnic base of the movement, he said.

While the idea of the United States “talking to the Taliban” remains politically changed domestically, it has to be done, the panelists agreed. But “we get into trouble trying to stage manage and orchestrate” events by ourselves, Cunningham said. “We need to be respectful of our limits” in any future negotiations over the future of Afghanistan.

To end the fighting and begin reconciliation, Smith said, “it’s not about dividing up ministries, not about dividing up provinces.” The key is “to find out what [the Taliban] really want.” He noted divisions within the Taliban itself having undergone two leadership changes in recent years.

In answer to a question about why Afghanistan remains important to the United States and the coalition, Ambassador Mohib said, “we are fighting [a] shared threat. We have mutual interests” in promoting political stability, security and economic growth.

  • RobM1981

    What’s our objective in Afghanistan, again?

    • Sami Shahid

      To threaten Russia

  • vincentlawrence

    Are we in Afghanistan primarily for Nation Building?
    What is the annual cost for the United States to travel in Pakistan to Afghanistan.
    I think we have paid enough to buy the whole rotten Country.
    Then recalculate what the mission is in Afghanistan.
    Nation building begins when the war is over, not before.
    We are filling the pockets of worthless rulers.

    • Sami Shahid

      You are filling the pockets of Taliban actually. Afghan Taliban, Afghan Government , Afghan Military and Afghan Intelligence all are same. They are just fooling you in the name of terrorism because they want funds.

  • Sami Shahid

    Why do you always blame Pakistan ? Don’t you know that Iran openly support its favorite groups in every muslim country ? Don’t you know Russia supports Taliban ? Are Central Asian states so innocent ? Afghanistan does not have a border with any of its neighboring country ! Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban are same ! They are just fooling the world in the name of terrorism just to receive aid !

  • Matt

    The US will be getting serious about defeating Al Qaeda and their brothers in the Taliban in Afghanistan again. The losers lost the election before they completely lost another country to terrorists. The US has the right to do whatever it takes to prevent Afghanistan from falling to terrorists. Trump should not hold back.

    • SolidBro

      Bush didn’t hold back either. It’s an unwinnable war and an impossible task. No external power has ever been able to control Afghanistan and we are just the latest fools to think we are different than all the prior great powers that failed in the Afghan sandbox.

      Compared to Afghanistan, Vietnam would have been an easy walkover for the USA – and it wasn’t.

      There is nothing we can accomplish in Afghanistan except running up our debt to China and killing a lot of our young men and maiming others. For NOTHING.

      • Matt

        It isn’t an option to cede territory to Al Qaeda. Killing them saves our own lives. We can do it much more efficiently and with less risk to our own by removing some of the ridiculous rules. Bush did hold back. Kabul could’ve been nuked, every city town and village could’ve been leveled. I agree we should not waste a single American life. Killing Al Qaeda completely is a worthy cause and honors those who have been killed already. Leaving the country to Al Qaeda makes certain ALL sacrifices have been FOR NOTHING.

  • SolidBro

    What EXACTLY is the mission in Afghanistan and what is the endgame? This isn’t doing squat to the Taliban which is holed up nice and comfy in Pakistan and will return and resume power the moment the US/ISAF leaves – no matter WHEN that is. Meanwhile, ensconced in their safe home bases in Pakistan, they are not thwarted from conducting cross-border combat ops to kill and maim our young people.

    As for Al Qaeda, they’ve long since moved on to Libya, Mali, Chad, Somalia, Niger, Sudan, Syria, Egypt (Sinai), Philippines, and Pakistan.

    Al-Zawahiri – the original architect of 9/11/2001 is still at-large and issuing audio recordings.

    We have and are accomplishing exactly jack squat in Afghanistan – nothing of any lasting value – at the cost of thousands of American lives, limbs, and concussed brains (TBI) – and over a TRILLION in wasted cash BORROWED from our more relevant enemy, CHINA.

    • Matt

      Al Qaeda has not “moved on” from Afghanistan. You can read about it at the Long War Journal. I tried to link to the article but it was rejected for some reason. 250 Al Qaeda killed in Afghanistan in the last year including 50 leaders. We can never stop killing them until they are all dead.