US & Canada

Afghanistan: Viewpoints on whether US should stay or go

Crowd of protesting Afghan citizens
Image caption The killing of Afghan civilians and burning of the Koran have sparked protests

The latest spate of violent incidents in Afghanistan is set to increase pressure in America and Europe for a quicker end to the mission in the country.

The US media report that the Obama administration is shifting the combat mission there to a support role by next summer and is considering withdrawing troops faster than planned.

Senior officials at the White House, particularly Vice-President Joe Biden, appear to be using the weekend shootings and the violent protests after the Koran burning to reduce the Afghan strategy to a limited counter-terrorism mission.

Remarkable progress

While accelerating the drawdown and ending the counter-insurgency mission may be politically expedient for the White House in the run-up to the US presidential election, it is a recipe for failure in Afghanistan.

Since the beginning of the surge and counter-insurgency campaign in early 2010, US and allied forces have made remarkable progress in southern Afghanistan, particularly in the Taliban heartland provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

The insurgents were driven out of their strategic strongholds; support for the Taliban among the local population declined significantly; and the central government was able to assert more control in populated areas. The Taliban failed to retake lost territory in its spring and summer offensives last year.

The surge also helped improve the quality and size of Afghanistan's security forces, which have gone from 190,000 inadequately trained and poorly equipped personnel to a more effective counter-insurgency force of 320,000 soldiers and policemen.

The Afghan forces lead nearly 40% of conventional and special forces missions, and have assumed security responsibility for more than 50% of the Afghan population with limited foreign assistance.

Eliminating safe havens

A major reduction in troop numbers, however, would not only endanger these gains, but also prevent the coalition and Afghan forces from eliminating insurgents' safe havens in eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqani network and Hizb-e Islami militants are still actively operating in areas surrounding Kabul and eastern provinces along the Pakistani border.

The most dangerous terrorist group in South Asia, the Haqqanis are closely associated with al-Qaeda, Punjabi Taliban groups, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terrorist groups with regional and global agendas. Defeating the Haqqani network and clearing its entrenched safe havens is not possible without a sufficient number of US and allied forces. The Afghan forces are not yet ready for the task.

Counter-terrorism alone is also not a viable alternative. Much of the success of counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan hinges upon human intelligence. In the absence of conventional forces to provide adequate security and cultivate ties with local population, the special forces will lose local support and be unable to function effectively.

Threat of war

Moreover, the Afghan government will not allow special forces to operate on its soil if the mission is only to capture and kill without providing assistance in governance, security and economic stability. Support for the US and Nato allies in Afghanistan will decline dramatically.

In the first years of war, the United States largely relied on counter-terrorism operations, and much of today's security and governance problems in Afghanistan emanate from that policy.

It strengthened warlords, undermined building Afghan institutions, and allowed the Taliban to reconstitute in southern and eastern provinces. Counter-terrorism alone means repeating the same mistake. It means endless fighting without a definitive, irreversible victory.

President Obama's withdrawal timelines have already undercut the effectiveness of the military mission in Afghanistan. The arbitrary deadlines emboldened the Taliban, weakened the coalition, strained ties with Kabul, and encouraged Pakistan and Iran to continue support for their proxies to maximise influence once US and Nato forces leave Afghanistan.

A premature withdrawal will not just undo the achievements of the past years, but will plunge the country into ethnic and civil war, and help the Taliban and al-Qaeda to re-establish safe havens in parts of the country from where they could plot attacks against Europe and the United States.

The American Enterprise Institute is a Washington, DC-based think tank devoted to public policy research promoting freedom, opportunity and enterprise.

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