President Trump may be a controversial and disruptive president. But in regard to Afghanistan, his frustration with the 17-year war differs little from the sentiments of President Barack Obama or most of the rest of us. Reportedly, he has asked for a precipitous cut of up to half the 14,000 American troops serving there, early this year.
That would be a mistake. There is still a strong case to sustain America’s longest war — especially if we redefine it, away from nation-building and toward something more like an enduring partnership with the Afghan people against regional and global extremism. Indeed, Washington should stop looking for an exit strategy and view Afghanistan as one pillar in a broader regional web of capabilities against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and related movements that show few signs of dissipating. Over time, we can gradually reduce our forces, but we will want selective intelligence and military capabilities in South Asia for many years to come.
A United Nations report estimates the total current ISIL membership in Iraq and Syria to be between 20,000 and 30,000. And as terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman and Seth Jones have noted, most of the 40,000 foreign fighters who poured into Iraq and Syria over the past four years remain alive and well, dispersed throughout the region.
Al Qaeda and related groups are also responsible for at least three major aircraft attacks or attempted attacks (in Egypt, Somalia and Australia) since 2015. One need not rant hysterically about existential threats to Western civilization to think that prudence would dictate retaining capacity to prevent such groups from establishing large physical strongholds anywhere, if possible. By that standard, Western counterterrorism policy since Sept. 11 has largely been a success; we should be wary of discarding what has proved to work reasonably well.
In the particular case of Afghanistan, and South Asia more generally, the newest concern is ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K. In recent years, it has probably become the strongest and largest ISIS affiliate outside Syria and Iraq, and has set up shop in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. Its stated ambitions, however unrealistic, are to establish a broader caliphate stretching from Iran to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to India and Pakistan. These ambitions give rise to the worry that ISIS-K could someday collaborate with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani group that carried out the Mumbai attacks of 2008, or another apocalyptic anti-India group.
Given the foreboding geography and weak Afghan government, squelching ISIS-K might be less realistic than defeating ISIS in eastern Syria or Iraq. But with the bases we have now, we can watch and listen to this group and strike when we get a good lead on the movement of a key leader or when it gets too comfortable in any one location. As many as three of its top leaders have already been removed from the battlefield by coalition forces in the last couple of years.
This platform in South Asia complements other United States counterterrorism capabilities in the broader Middle East, especially in places where local governments are weakest and threats are greatest. American military facilities in Qatar and Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as ships in or near the Persian Gulf, support operations in Iraq and Syria. United States bases in Djibouti help us maintain vigilance over Yemen, Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden region. The Sixth Fleet, and American assets in Italy, provide a watchful eye over Libya and the rest of northern Africa.
A presence in Afghanistan in effect completes the web. Few major areas of likely terrorist concentration or activity are more than a few hundred miles away from America’s eyes and ears — and, if necessary, its commandos, drones and other tactical assets. All of this is expensive, but not inordinately so — perhaps costing roughly 30 billion to $70 billion a year, based on an analysis of estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. That’s still less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget for 2019.
Today the Afghan government controls only some of its own country — about 55 percent of all administrative districts, where about 65 percent of all Afghans live, according to C.I.A. estimates. Yet it does hold all the major cities and most major roads. For narrow American counterterrorism purposes, that is probably adequate, assuming it can be sustained.
None of this is an argument for complacency. Assuming no precipitous United States and NATO withdrawal, the greatest threat to Afghanistan today is probably the enormous stresses and strains being placed on its security forces, which could crack given current trends. They have reportedly suffered more than 28,000 fatalities since 2015 as well as high desertion rates, and as a result remain overstretched. The recent heinous Taliban attack that killed several dozen intelligence personnel in Wardak Province south of Kabul is but the latest challenge.
Several ideas can make the Afghan Army and police stronger and more resilient, however, so that this downward spiral does not accelerate. Working with the Afghan Ministry of Defense, we should try to expand a new arm of the security forces known as the Afghan National Army Territorial Force. It is recruited and operated locally. Since many Afghans prefer to defend their home territories rather than distant parts of the nation, this concept should help with recruiting and retention.
In addition, we should encourage the Afghan government to stop trying to hold onto so many rural parts of the country. This approach, while understandable, leaves soldiers and police in sparsely manned remote outposts, often deployed for long stretches without leave and vulnerable to Taliban ambush.
There will of course be no outright victory in Afghanistan anytime soon, and any peace deal with the Taliban remains a long-shot. But the United States-NATO mission in Afghanistan can continue to protect the West from large-scale terrorist attacks originating in South Asia, while gradually declining in size in years to come. And Afghans can still sustain the patient hope that their country will stabilize and strengthen over time.
Such goals may not sound very Churchillian. But they are what is now realistic in Afghanistan — and for core American national security interests, they may just be good enough.
Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.