As the White House ponders its next moves in Iraq, it also faces the question of how to best prevent the precarious security order it has established in Afghanistan from unraveling once U.S. troops withdraw at the end of 2016.
That question was put to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey when the pair appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday to discuss the Defense Department’s budget.
“First, Afghanistan is not Iraq, internally, historically, ethnically, religiously,” Hagel responded. “Second, there is strong support in Afghanistan today for America’s continued [presence] as well as our NATO ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] there.”
Dempsey agreed, saying it was “unlikely” Afghanistan’s security status would devolve to create the kind of vulnerabilities that allowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to take root in Iraq. Some 10,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through this year, and all will be fully gone by the end of 2016.
But the incoming Afghan president — whichever candidate emerges victorious in the disputed runoff race — wants the U.S. military to stay and help, unlike Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who refused an agreement that would allow a small force of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011.
Following Afghanistan’s national elections in April both runoff candidates — Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — said they would sign the bilateral security agreement that would ensure U.S. troops stay in the country beyond 2014. Continuing the U.S. troop presence is far more popular in Afghanistan's legislature than it was in Iraq's.
Afghanistan's leadership, of course, may have little choice but to agree. The Afghan budget cannot cover the $5 billion a year needed to fund the national security forces built by the U.S. over the past decade; that money will instead come from the U.S. and other donor countries for the foreseeable future.
Still, the ethnic breakdown of those security forces — particularly in the Afghan national army — is problematic. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, the population is mainly Pashtun and the forces deployed there are not. They could be seen as “an occupying power in the south,” Graham argued, in much the same way the Shia-dominated Iraqi army was viewed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which the Iraqi security forces abandoned last week to ISIL fighters and their allies.
There are, however, concrete differences between the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi army and police forces, and the Afghan National Army. The Iraqi security forces are predominantly Shia. Despite multiple appeals from both the U.S. military and the U.S. government to bring more Sunnis into their ranks, the Iraqi government has instead been weeding them out. In Afghanistan, the ethnic makeup of the army is more balanced: Pashtuns make up 43 percent, Tajiks 32 percent, Hazara 12 percent and Uzbeks come in at 10 percent, with the rest made up of smaller ethnic groups.
But many of the soldiers are still illiterate despite years of training and billions of U.S. dollars, and the desertion rate remains high. They’ve struggled to face Afghan Taliban fighters in combat, and their loyalties have been scrutinized after periodic attacks on Western military personnel embedded with them. Taliban units have been able to launch spectacular attacks on targets within heavily fortified Kabul and the endemic corruption within the Afghan government and its security forces has prompted concerns about authority vacuums once the U.S. leaves.
Critics of the withdrawal plan in Washington say a lower number of U.S. troops will limit U.S. ability to operate against al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Afghanistan and gather intelligence — something Washington is currently struggling with in Iraq as it scrambles to understand and identify ISIL members and their allies and line up possible targets for attack.
There are regional ramifications too.
Afghanistan, like Iraq, has jealous neighbors. And like Iraq — a theater of proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran — Afghanistan has also been a battlefield for regional arch-rivals India and Pakistan.
“Fundamentally, the war in Afghanistan is an Indo-Pakistan proxy conflict layered atop Afghanistan’s ethnic cleavages,” Thomas Lynch of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies wrote Wednesday. “In this decades-old struggle, NATO counterinsurgency forces are but a temporary participant.”
Lynch argues that Pakistan perceives the U.S.-backed order in Kabul as favoring India, motivating it to tacitly support the Afghan Taliban and allied groups interested in disrupting stability in Afghanistan. U.S. leaders have long misunderstood the struggle to establish a security foothold in Afghanistan to battle al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world, he writes.
“It is best viewed as it has always been discussed in Afghan, Pakistani and Indian circles: a Pakistani-supported Pashtun rebellion against a Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-dominated Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with links to New Delhi and Tehran,” says Lynch. The regional powers reinforcing Afghanistan's civil war are the strongest comparison to Iraq.
Pakistan would view any derailment of the Afghan National Army as a break up that would create well-equipped militia forces, Lynch argues, and unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. has been able to mobilize aircraft carriers on standby in the Persian Gulf to assist at a moment’s notice, the U.S. military will find it much more difficult to send assets into landlocked Afghanistan to help stabilize the environment if Pakistan prevents safe passage across its borders.
President Obama’s decision to stick with his plan for troop numbers in Afghanistan given the crisis in Iraq continues to spark criticism in Republican quarters.
“He seems determined to pull out completely, whether or not the Taliban is in a position to re-establish itself, whether or not al-Qaeda senior leadership finds a more permissive environment in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and whether or not al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan completely — one of our primary aims in this conflict from the beginning,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week.
The White House and Democratic leaders argue that after billions of dollars, years of training, U.S. troop deaths and voter fatigue, Afghanistan will have to maintain its own security with minimal U.S. help.
In May, President Barack Obama declared, “I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” as he signaled the end of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.”
Almost three years ago he used similar language to declare an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq. “We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty,” Obama said in October 2011. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”