When the United States invaded Afghanistan in the Aftermath of 9/11 we had several objectives. We were going to overthrow the Taliban led government that had been sheltering Bin-Laden and eliminate Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists to stage attacks against the United States.
None of these objectives were accomplished by the invasion. Bin-Laden escaped and eventually found refuge in Pakistan, where he was eventually found and eliminated by Seal Team Six a decade later.
In 2003 the United States made the fateful decision to Invade Iraq. While the initial invasion went well the country soon spiraled out of control. As insurgent groups rose from the ashes of Saddam’s Iraq a quagmire ensued that drained American blood and resources. As war raged in Iraq, Afghanistan was put on the back burner.
A conflict frozen
While the battle was not lost in Afghanistan it is certainly not won. Fifteen years later, we are simply are not making enough progress. If American troop levels are any indication, the Afghan National Army (ANA) is in no position to take control of the country. President Obama’s original plan was to have only 5,500 troops in Afghanistan during 2016. Eventually this was supposed to be reduced to only 1000 troops based in Kabul by the start of 2017.
Those plans are now in shambles. President Obama has decided that troops levels will remain around 10,000 for most of 2016 and only drop to 5,500 at the start of 2017. In other words, over Fifteen years after the invasion the United States will still have over 5000 troops in Afghanistan . Even after all this time NATO troops have complained that they don’t have the time to train Afghan troops for a 2018 draw down.
Helmand and Kunduz
Even after all of this time the Taliban are still a very real threat to the Afghan state. This became apparent in the recent surge of violence in Helmand province and during the Taliban takeover of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. The Battle of Kunduz not only showed that the Taliban are capable of taking over a major city but also highlighted the deficiencies of the ANA.
Although Afghan troops managed to retake the city after 15 days of fighting, they were still reliant of the help of American air power and special forces personnel. The U.S AC-130 gunship strike on the MSF hospital in the city revealed the presence of U.S air support and forward air controllers on the ground. The Afghans will have to wait until the end of 2018 before the first order of their own warplanes is fully delivered. Even then, they will still have only 20 fixed wing light attack aircraft.
A recent Reuters article put even more doubt into the success of Afghan security forces. Along with a lack of air support the Afghans are lacking logistical and maintenance capabilities. So, even if they have tanks and planes they may not be able to keep them combat ready.
As of now the U.S is redeploying combat troops to Helmand to combat Al-Qaeda and ISIS after the Afghan army failed to “live up to expectations.“While the mission in Helmand is meant to be for training the ANA, some generals are lobbying for permission to attack the Taliban directly. Villages and districts regularly change hands between government forces and the Taliban and just today (4/19/16) they launched a massive attack on Kabul. Afghans are being killed and deserting in droves. In 2015 it is estimated that 5,500 Afghan security personnel were killed, more than all coalition forces throughout the entire war.
Afghanistan’s economic situation is also troublesome. The Islamic Republic hasn’t improved enough to free it from reliance on foreign nations; with sixty percent of Afghanistan’s budget made up of foreign aid. Security issues and mismanagement mean that over a trillion dollars of Afghanistan’s own natural resources remain unexploited. It is still one of the poorest nations in Asia.
Afghanistan’s poor economic condition is seriously effecting it’s ability to defeat the Taliban. Not only can it not afford to provide it’s army with equipment, but it still cannot provide alternatives to opium farming for a large portion of the Afghan population. The Taliban are still funding their operations by selling this opium and it is still too important to the Afghan economy and local farmers to simply torch.
America wants to find a way out of Afghanistan. To do so, the United States is attempting to build up both the country and the army to a level of self-sufficiency to the point that they can fight without American help.
America has been through this process at least twice in recent memory. In Vietnam and Iraq the United States left unmotivated and inept troops to defend gains made by spilling American blood and treasure. In both cases training and high-end American weaponry was supplied in hopes that the local troops could at least hold their own against the enemy. American efforts failed miserably. Saigon fell to the NVA and ISIS conquered half of Iraq.
Given Afghanistan’s current state, it is clearly unable to manage without direct outside support. The U.S is stuck in Afghanistan with a half-finished war. The political will to surge large troop formations into the country does not exist. However, pulling out is likely to precipitate a collapse of the Afghan state.
If we leave, the Taliban will likely take back the country and again make it a safe haven for terrorist groups. If we stay it could take decades to build Afghanistan into a self-sufficient nation. In short, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Where we go from here, I do not know.