Doubling Down On Afghanistan

Today, Afghanistan and the US signed an agreement allowing nearly 10,000 American soldiers to remain there past the end of this year, fulfilling a campaign pledge from the new president, Ashraf Ghani:

Under the agreement, 12,000 foreign military personnel are expected to stay after 2014, when the combat mission of Afghanistan’s U.S.-led NATO force ends. The force is expected to be made up of 9,800 U.S. troops with the rest from other NATO members. They will train and assist Afghan security forces in the war against the Taliban and its radical Islamist allies. The U.S. has the right to keep bases in Afghanistan as long as the security pact is in force, and in return it promises to raise funds to train and equip the Afghan security forces, which now number 350,000.

Ghani was inaugurated on Monday and called on the Taliban to join peace talks. He formed a unity government with election rival Abdullah Abdullah after a prolonged standoff over vote results that ended in a deal to make Ghani president and Abdullah a chief executive in the government with broad powers.

“Like it or not,” Ioannis Koskinas argues, “Afghanistan remains a key battlefront in the fight against extremists, terrorists, and fanatics hiding behind the veil of religious fundamentalism”:

The uncertainty that surrounded the prolonged election process, in many ways, emboldened the insurgents and strengthened their narrative. Additionally, while the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end at the end of this year, al Qaeda fighters, while diminished in number, remain strong in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although unsavory in Washington political circles, al Qaeda’s presence and the introduction of groups who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State make an enduring U.S. counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan long past 2015 necessary. Complicated by the Taliban’s significant gains in parts of Afghanistan in past months, at times aided by foreign fighters, Obama would be smart to reconsider his earlier arbitrary timeline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2015. It is imperative that Ghani and Abdullah have the necessary time to combat the insurgency physically, but also counter their narrative through reform initiatives.

The Obama administration since May had been pushing for the troop extension, and the main obstacle to the BSA was former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s implacable opposition. But Morrissey spins the agreement as a policy shift by Obama, inspired by the disaster that befell Iraq after the US withdrawal:

Of course, the war isn’t coming to an end in Afghanistan any more than it came to an end in Iraq. The Taliban have picked up their efforts as the US prepared to leave, and will no doubt continue to pressure Kabul politically as well as militarily for years to come. The best that the US can do in Afghanistan is attempt to keep the Afghan security forces from collapsing while all sides tire of the fight and find a way to settle the tribal wars that have been ongoing since the Soviet withdrawal. … The residual-force arrangement may not prove successful in keeping Afghanistan from collapse, but at least they show that someone’s learned a lesson from the American withdrawal from Iraq.

Drawing on an interview with Ghani from last month, Sune Engel Rasmussen underscores the challenges faced by the new Afghan president, especially given the roundabout (and possibly fraudulent) way he came into office:

Corruption is only one of the ills plaguing the Afghan economy.Dependent on foreign imports and with little domestic industry to speak of, the economy was left close to comatose as financial activity stopped during the recent election impasse. According to the country’s finance minister, the stuck ballot cost Afghanistan $5 billion in lost revenue and investment, and threatened to leave the government unable to pay salaries for civil servants.

Making Afghanistan self-sufficient is at the top of Ghani’s agenda. “We want to generate one of the biggest construction industries in the region,” he said. “We have enough marble to last the region for 100 years, but we are importing marble from neighboring countries.” Many of Afghanistan’s problems come down to poor infrastructure. “Urban and rural Afghanistan are totally disconnected. Go to the market. 70 percent of the food is foreign imported, while 40-60 percent of our food rots between the field and the market because we don’t have the system,” Ghani noted.