The gruesome theatrics of the Islamic State (IS) captivate the world’s attention, instilling fear in the public from Los Angeles to Paris to Beirut. Yet while arrests are made in Europe and airstrikes continue in Raqqa, Americans ignore developments on another worn-out battlefield: Afghanistan.
Afghanistan faces numerous crises in 2016 that could rock the country and threaten U.S. security investments. The United States still has 10,000 troops stationed in the country. It must take decisive action not to supply vast numbers of troops or massively increase spending, but instead abandon inadequate policies before something catastrophic occurs. These must be more than incremental policy changes that merely stave off disaster for the interim, as this would compound the seriousness of each crisis. After traveling to Afghanistan in October 2015, we have identified key security risks and steps the United States can take to forestall disaster.
In 2015, Taliban violence resulted in more Afghan civilian, police, and military casualties than in any year since U.S. and NATO forces began fighting in Afghanistan. More fighters, better weapons, and new tactics made the 2015 Taliban offensive their most effective yet, with a recent attack in Parwan province that killed six U.S. soldiers serving as a terrible reminder of this grim reality. Next year, the Taliban will aim to take provincial cities, pounce on Kandahar, and spread fear through spectacular attacks. A major Taliban offensive following this year’s fierce assault is almost certain. Indeed, as a recent Department of Defense report describes, the security situation in Afghanistan has grown more precarious over the last year.
The Afghan army has done its best to counter the Taliban assault. Afghan forces retook Kunduz and pushed back serious Taliban offensives in other cities, including Ghazni. While attrition is high due to soldiers overstaying leaves, desertion, and Taliban threats to soldiers’ families, recruitment of new forces has exceeded losses. Yet, strong ground forces cannot compensate for inadequate air support, modern intelligence capabilities, well-functioning logistics (to maintain vehicles and keep essential supplies available), and higher-order assistance for Afghanistan’s still-nascent security institutions. The United States must help fill these critical gaps while maintaining its promises to complete these critical, but unfinished, programs. The United States must also amend the very restrictive rules of engagement that currently limit air support capabilities, and restore intelligence assets that have been withdrawn. Stronger battlefield intelligence capabilities are essential, as we learned after the tragic bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz. More effective air attacks and improved intelligence could seriously disrupt Taliban operations in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban is no longer the only threat to stability in Afghanistan. The influence of the Islamic State is growing, as it recruits more extremist Taliban members and brings in fighters from non-Afghan communities, including Uzbeks and Pakistanis. These IS-inspired groups challenge the new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who seeks to cement his leadership after the years-long deception over the death of his predecessor, Mullah Omar. The Taliban fragmentation and competition from IS, especially prominent in the provinces of Zabul and Nangarhar, have led to increased violence, including the recent beheadings of minority Hazaras. The renewed violence reduces already slim hopes for a negotiated peace in Afghanistan.
The United States and NATO must intensify actions against IS in Afghanistan. Like al Qaeda, the group must be a priority target for air and counter terrorist missions. Now is the time to destroy it. At a minimum, coalition forces must restrain the growth of this hostile force before it becomes a significantly larger threat.
Afghanistan is undertaking a unique experiment in elected government. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate voted in 2014, despite threats from the Taliban to kill or mutilate anyone who did so. However, the results were clouded by accusations of widespread fraud. After an extended political impasse, the United States brokered a peaceful settlement and a power-sharing agreement between the two contenders in the run off. The National Unity Government (NUG) was formed with Ashraf Ghani serving as president and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive officer.
Military solutions alone cannot solve all of the country’s woes, as the electorate’s participation and the elected officials’ ability to govern are as critical to a stable state as a strong security apparatus. Now, at a time when insurgent attacks need a strong response and the government needs to stop its internal wrangling and start delivering services to civilians, the NUG finds itself politically distracted. Ex-president Hamid Karzai and mujahedeen leaders continue to undermine the government in an attempt to spur its collapse. These attempts are little more than a naked power grab that, if successful, would usher in months of political paralysis while the victors squabble over the spoils of power. This would be disastrous, at a time when insurgent attacks need a strong response and the government needs to start delivering services. The United States and other coalition nations must voice strong opposition to all efforts to change the constitution through a Loya Jirga or the scheduling of early elections. Without first reforming the electoral system, another massively fraudulent election will surely follow. Quiet opposition will be taken as willingness to see the NUG undone.
Despite some positive developments, the Afghan government is losing popular support. More and more Afghans believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country, and along with them goes the potential for economic growth. Crime and insecurity in the cities contribute to this brain and asset drain. Stakeholders in Afghanistan must demand governance improvements from the NUG – including opposition to vicious ethnic discrimination and power abuse, which the Taliban exploited in Kunduz – that the Afghan people crave. The government should focus on increasing effective anti-criminal and anti-corruption policing in the major cities, such as Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad. This would require significant government action against some major power brokers. Additionally, a concerted foreign advisory effort with the police is needed to improve civilian security. These actions require vigorous U.S. and international backing.
Doubts are growing about the United States’ and NATO’s commitment to long-term support for Afghanistan. While President Barack Obama’s decision to retain major security hubs in Afghanistan was a step in the right direction, this progress was undercut by the planned force reductions at the end of 2016. In a worsening security environment, Afghans fear being abandoned by their international partners. To rebuild confidence, a U.S.-led NATO review of conditions on the ground and a demonstrated willingness to fill major gaps, such as air support, would counteract this sense of abandonment.
Not all is gloom. Unlike Karzai, who blamed the United States for most of Afghanistan’s problems and refused to move against massive corruption, Ghani remains committed to reform. There is progress in revenue collection, enforcement action against fraud in Kabul Bank, and some members of the new cabinet are making progress in less visible but important reforms like speeding business licensing and settling land titles. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, militias do not yet dominate either politics or the battlefield. Actions are still available to minimize the looming crises. But planning and decisions are needed now, not after the crises explode.
This piece was originally published by Foreign Policy.