Don’t abandon Afghanistan too soon

Afghan National Army soldiers aarive outside of Kunduz, Afghanistan in September. (Najim Rahim/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Afghan National Army soldiers aarive outside of Kunduz, Afghanistan in September. (Najim Rahim/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The loss of the Afghan provincial capital Kunduz was a psychological shock to the Afghan people, a strategic and tactical defeat for both Afghanistan and the United States, and a tragedy for those at the Doctors Without Borders hospital there. Yet the shock may prompt essential changes. It is important to examine both Afghan and U.S. responsibility for the disaster, what is happening now and what needs to be done. President Obama’s decision Thursday to maintain existing U.S. force levels into next year was absolutely correct to achieve the goal he stated of “sustainable Afghan capacity and self-sufficiency.”

Kunduz, which has since been recaptured by Afghan forces, was more than just the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban; its fall was highly symbolic because it was the site of the Taliban’s last stand in 2001. The poor initial performance of Afghan security forces and the tragic bombing of a nongovernmental organization hospital in the midst of a chaotic response to the attack sparked national disappointment in Afghanistan and international concern. All this came on the back of a dismal year in which many more Afghan civilians died than did so while international forces fought the Taliban, and the national unity government, which came into office on a wave of hope a year ago, stalled on filling essential positions and reforming governance.

The United States and its allies share responsibility for the military losses. We built security forces that depend on air power and need continued intelligence and advisory support. But instead of ensuring that these capabilities are available, we have severely limited air support, transferred key intelligence enablers to Iraq and created a patchwork system that left key areas, including Kunduz, without effective advisers. Our withdrawals from these vital functions based on politically driven timetables ignored reality on the ground, including Taliban capabilities and the embrace of the Islamic State by some militants.

But Afghans need to understand that U.S. support is not, and should not, be a blank check. Both the government and the opposition need to work to improve their military, political and governance performance, and come together instead of pulling the country apart.

The Kunduz setback does not mean the war is lost. Elite Afghan commandos delivered by recapturing critical areas. Whereas Mosul in Iraq remains in enemy hands a year after it fell, Kunduz has returned to government control. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah appear to be heeding the call to action. During our recent 10-day visit to Afghanistan, each told us that they have agreed to an accelerated appointment process. Five new governors have been named, including three to critical provinces; further appointments and the long-delayed replacement of numerous senior officers is promised and must happen quickly. Appointments must involve effective individuals and cannot be merely political payoffs. Ghani has created a commission to investigate Kunduz, with a mandate to recommend action, that is led by opposition voices, including a former head of intelligence, though it sadly lacks female members.

If government performance takes off, public confidence could begin to be restored. More remains to be done. Afghan power brokers, intent on advancing personal agendas, seek to replace the government. They need to be pressed to stand down. The effort to reduce predatory governance in the provinces and Kabul cannot be shoved aside. Ghani and Abdullah must work effectively together despite the rapacious desires of their supporters and opponents. Broader consultation with the Afghan people is needed.

The United States needs to continue to step up to its own responsibilities, as well. Ground combat troops are not needed, but advisers and air power must be kept in place and not reduced on some blind, years-old timetable. Air power must be available to preempt attacks and not confined, as it is now, to desperate defense after attacks have begun. Afghan and foreign officials we spoke to foresee a crescendo of Taliban attacks as international forces withdraw. An even bigger Taliban offensive next year is likely to stretch battered Afghan forces further. We have not ended a war, only left it to the Afghans too soon.

The United States should maintain its current forces and funding levels, which are less than 10 percent of expenditures a few years ago, and focus on effectively advising Afghan forces. A reduction of the U.S. effort to a “pure” counterterrorism effort, still foreshadowed by the president’s hope of getting to about half the current force level sometime next year, would be disturbingly similar to what President George W. Bush tried a decade ago. Such a premature drawdown would abandon Afghan forces before they are ready, increasing the risk that a renewed terrorist haven will emerge.

Asking our allies to do jobs they are not equipped to do raises the risk of more reversals such as Kunduz and tragedies like the hospital bombing. Obama’s decision to maintain forces properly avoids preempting his successor’s choices about a difficult and evolving situation. That focus, and not a predetermined timetable, should continue to guide decisions throughout the remainder of this administration. The president’s public determination to maintain our current training and advising effort until Afghan forces do not need such help will provide a needed boost to both Afghans and our NATO allies — some of whom have been ahead of us in urging that we stay. And it is the right thing to do for our national interests.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ronald Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. David Sedney was deputy U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013.

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