Abandonment of Afghanistan at this time would be highly inadvisable because of the inordinate risks of abetting Islamic extremism and generating higher outflows of narcotics and people. The strategy of 2013-2017, in which small numbers of American troops advised Afghan forces and conducted raids, prevented the Kabul government from falling, but it failed to prevent insurgents from retaking much of the country. Military setbacks heightened infighting among Afghan elites and impeded the development of a viable national government.
The August 2017 announcement of an enduring U.S. commitment has been a welcome change, easing Afghan fears of American abandonment—fears that have caused many Afghans to sit on the fence or side with the insurgents. The Trump administration’s determination to preserve the Afghan government and its resolve to get tougher with Pakistan could also cause the Pakistani government to reduce its assistance to the Afghan insurgents. The actual impact on the Pakistanis, however, remains to be seen.
The proper degree of reliance upon local and regional warlords has bedeviled security efforts in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. For the first few years of the post-Taliban era, the international community permitted the warlords to convert their militias into police forces, but the misbehavior of those forces and their ineffectiveness in halting the return of the Taliban led to increased emphasis on national security forces. Building those forces required a long-term commitment, for a decade of civil war and Taliban rule had left Afghanistan bereft of trained and experienced officers. The slow rate of progress, coupled with the revival of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, led to intermittent efforts to empower warlords, with widely varying results.
The American effort to build the national security forces has been expensive, and at times has been fruitless because of lack of care and patience, but it has produced a younger generation of military and police officers who are less prone to criminality and corruption than the warlords. Given what has been achieved and what is at stake, continued investment is warranted. The national security forces will have to take the lead in securing Afghanistan’s provinces because of their superior competence and commitment to the nation of Afghanistan.
Whether the warlords can play constructive roles going forward will have to be handled on a case by case basis. Having spent considerable time traveling around Afghanistan, I have found that it is most difficult to gauge the current state of affairs without visiting the districts and provinces, and that there is great variation from one place to the next. With the international media presence now much smaller than a few years ago, it is even more difficult to tell what is going on from afar.
Bolstering the U.S. advisory presence with the Afghan national security forces, as the Trump administration is in the process of doing, will help reverse the negative military trends of the past few years. Many of the Afghan units are now reasonably good at basic infantry skills, but they require help with combat-enabling functions such as close air support, intelligence, and logistics. Considering the limited size of the recent U.S. troop augmentation, the recapture of territory and population is likely to be incremental, not rapid. Although the American public is generally impatient with overseas military commitments, it is likely to tolerate this level of U.S. military involvement so long as American casualties continue to remain low.
Mark Moyar is Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency.