President Obama announced earlier this month that he is abandoning his plan to completely pull out U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a promise that he had made during his first presidential campaign. It is too bad that Obama will not be able to keep his word, but to keep troops in Afghanistan is a great decision. It also shows that he has finally learned to follow the advice of his top brass, a harsh lesson learned after the blunder he caused in Iraq, which eventually led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Daesh (ISIS).
The United States has been fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan for the last fourteen years, and in that time they made tremendous progress eliminating the top leadership of both militant organizations. However, the advance came to a halt last year as the U.S. began withdrawing troops. As a result, the Taliban were able to slowly re-capture one-fifth of the country, making it the largest territorial gain since the beginning of the war.
Late last month the Taliban were able to capture and hold the large town of Kunduz for two weeks, this proved to be a critical juncture and a direct reminder of the Iraqi debacle.
Obama’s previous experience of ignoring the advice of his generals, and completely pulling back all U.S. troops from Iraq led to intense sectarian violence, which gave birth to ISIS, who quickly gained control of massive territory in Iraq and Syria, forcing Obama to redeploy nearly 3,000 troops to Iraq, not to mention recommit massive military resources for the fight against ISIS.
Recalling troops from Afghanistan would lead to a resurgence of terrorist groups. And with a leadership crisis following the death of the Taliban’s supreme commander, Mullah Omar, there is strong evidence that ISIS may gain influence.
In an attempt to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq, and to counter the growing threat of the Taliban and other groups, Obama announced that 9,800 American troops would remain in Afghanistan at least until the end of 2017, and will assist the Afghan army. These troops will not directly participate in combat missions. This will make the task of regaining territory from the Taliban very difficult.
As a Pakistani I welcome this shift in American policy, but am still concerned that if the Afghan army with the help of the U.S. is not able to regain territory, which it will most likely not be able to with only 9,800 American soldiers, or is unable to stop the loss of territory to groups that have pledged their allegiance to ISIS that it will prolong the war on terror, and Pakistan as a frontline state would take the biggest blows, as it has been subjected to in the past.
The U.S. military must push their political leadership to commit more troops on the ground, at least 20,000 more, and must also agree to commit the full force of their air power to swiftly regain and hold the territory.
This military action must also be accompanied with a strategy of positively engaging the Taliban in an effort to bring them into the political mainstream of the country, because the Taliban in Afghanistan are in majority, and if the Americans along with the current Afghan government continue to ignore the majority then the endless circle of violence will continue.
A large group like the Taliban cannot be suppressed, which is another lesson I hope Obama learned from his Iraqi experience. The reason there was intense sectarian violence in Iraq was because Prime Minister Maliki suppressed the Sunni population, alienating them by closely aligning with Iran and keeping them out of mainstream politics. Extremist groups like ISIS took advantage of this sectarian conflict to promote hatred and recruit people in large numbers.
The reality is that this war in Afghanistan has gone on way too long, and it is being prolonged because of mistakes made by the American political leadership. The top brass in the U.S. military need to make their politicians understand that this war cannot be sustained forever, and unfortunately requires more troops to undo the damage already caused by the declining U.S. military presence.
American politicians must also understand that military action alone will not be enough to ensure that their victory is permanent. For an enduring peace, military action is only the first step, they must also devise a framework that is inclusive of Taliban participation in mainstream politics, offer them assistance in rehabilitating from the long war, which includes providing social programs, as well as economic opportunities.
The writer is an assistant professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad.