To: The National Security Council
From: Mxxxxxxx, Policy Analyst at the Ford School
Subject: Conflict in Afghanistan
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States (U.S.) remains heavily involved in securing Afghanistan. After spending a total of $1.07 trillion dollars on the conflict1, little progress has been made to reconstruct a country which sustained two wars and was infiltrated by extremist terrorist groups. Three presidents and countless resources later, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan remains heavily controversial among the American people and the international community. Many argue that U.S. has little strategic interests in Afghanistan2. I therefore recommend that the US, over time, strategically decrease the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan and utilize its resources in a more impactful way.
Background – Basic Facts and Political Evolution
The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan originated in 19343, the year the United States officially recognized Afghanistan’s independence and decided to support young King Amanollah Khan in helping him reconstruct and revitalize Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan fell under Soviet protection shortly after their independence, the US remained one of the largest contributors of AID and Peace Corps Program which totaled a whopping “$504.2 million”4. Even though US-Afghan relations continued to be cordial throughout its different regimes following its independence, the relationship became strained with the fall of the Shah of Iran. With strengthening Soviet-Afghan relations, the United States began phasing out aid projects, removing the Peace Corps program and significantly reducing the staff at the Embassy5. With the Americans gone, the Soviet interests in Afghanistan grew as they become Afghanistan’s main trading partner and its primary economic and military supporter.
This overbearing Soviet involvement in the Afghan government gave rise to the Islamic resistance groups against Soviets. Groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda rose to remove the Soviets from Afghanistan6. The country then became more reliant on Soviet support to quell these groups of Islamic rebels. This effort lasted months and in a final effort to remove these rebels, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in a combined Soviet-Afghan attack. The result was deceptive. For, it seemed like an initial Soviet victory, however, the Afghan Muslim warriors called the Mujahideen took up arms and, in a seemingly futile task, managed to come out victorious and remove the Soviet’s, and their influence, from Afghanistan7. Osama bin Laden was among the thousands of people who fought against the Russians. With the Americans and now the Soviets gone, the country fell into a state of anarchy, with no single government. Local tribal warlords fought each other for control, depleting the country of its resources and terrorizing its own people.
This state of anarchy lasted for a couple years until the infamous leader of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden came to power and launched a war against the “West”. In August of 1996, bin Laden issued a “Declaration of War” on America for its support of Israel and its use of air bases in Saudi Arabia8. A few months later, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden colluded and finalized a plan to attack the United States using suicide bombers and planes9. This was the start of the 9/11 attacks. Months later, on September 11, 2001, the world was shocked by the deadliest terrorist attack in history. On September 20, 2001, President Bush addressed the United States Congress, declaring a “War on Terror” and warned that this war would start with Al-Qaeda but would not end there10. This was the start of major military campaigns – first against Afghanistan and then, against Iraq. Bush kicked off the campaign by attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan for hiding Osama bin Laden.
Over a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks, after multiple state leaders, and exorbitant expenditure of taxpayer funds, the United States has not been successful in the war with Afghanistan. A headline from the Journal of Foreign Policy reads, “one year after President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan, the United States appears to be no closer to stabilizing the country…”11. In fact, it is commonly believed that, “The Trump administration is now using Henry Kissinger’s “decent interval” process of abandonment to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan.”12. Trump’s strategy to pull out of Afghanistan is simple; come to a peace agreement and withdraw. This would include the removal of both troops and foreign aid.
While the United States is committed to protecting Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorist groups while supporting its economic and social growth. Both of these objectives require a strong military presence and foreign aid. However, it is also necessary for the United States to consider both internal and external repercussions of such an effort. After 19 years of continuous engagement, there needs to be a new course of action that will fulfill the U.S commitment to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and alleviate the U. S’s involvement. To do this, the current administration has three possible options:
1. Maintain the status quo (decrease military presence and sign peace deal); or
2. Reallocate resources on more impactful reconstruction initiatives.
Since President Trump was elected to office, his policy toward Afghanistan shifted from increasing the forces to decreasing military forces13, with a long-term goal to abandon Afghanistan altogether14. In December 2018, Trump ordered the Pentagon to “withdraw nearly half of the 14,000 troops”15. While this “status quo” situation would eventually result in an expedient removal of U.S. forces, it neglects to consider the short-term impact of decreasing the military capabilities in Afghanistan. A crucial component driving the conflict is overlooked with this strategy, the governance and politics in Afghanistan. The dysfunctional political climate in Afghanistan has resulted in mass migrations of people out of the country, violence against civilians, and corruption in the governing bodies.
With decreased U.S. forces, it is believed that Afghanistan will “plunge the country further into chaos”16 and breed more anti-American terrorists. Additionally, security has become a larger concern in recent years which would require more U.S. military personnel to increase defenses against Afghan neighbors Pakistan, Iran and Russia. Though this approach saves millions of U.S. dollars, it does not guarantee cooperation from the Islamic State. The removal of the troops is a result of demands made by the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with the United States17 removing some of the leverage American diplomats have established over the years. Though the Taliban have indicated that the withdrawal of foreign troops is a nonnegotiable demand, they still preferred to keep some foreign presence because of the ongoing threat of attacks from other Islamic groups18.
Officials warned the President that removing 7,000 troops would result in negative consequences by giving the extremist groups a space to plan against the U.S. and its allies. Army General Austin Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has expressed that the continued mission in Afghanistan is crucial to protecting U.S. security19. Additionally, removing half of the armed force from Afghanistan could be dangerous if the remaining troops who were spread too thin or short staffed. The Taliban could see this as a weakness and forcibly depose of the rest in a surprise attack. In contrast, supporters of this strategy argue that the “security in the country is deteriorating, despite the existing U.S. military presence there”20. From an economic standpoint, this option seems like a clear winner – less U.S resources in Afghanistan, less money spent abroad, and less time involved in other countries’ domestic issues. However, I would argue the United States has a heightened obligation to ensure peace in Afghanistan and leaving, would undoubtedly lead to more conflict in the future.
Instead of removing all of the troops at once, a more effective method would be to strategically remove them over a period of time, and, in parallel, bring in other organizations like the United Nations to help reconstruct Afghanistan. Post-conflict reconstruction is holistic and multidimensional effort to simultaneously improve military (restoration of law and order), politics (governance), economy (rehabilitation and development) and social condition (justice and reconciliation)21. If the United States put more effort in improving the economic dimension of reconstruction, I believe there will be more meaningful progress. Projects which involves restoring physical infrastructure and facilities, establishing of social services, creating the private sector and implementing structural growth are ways in which a country can build a foundation that is not rooted in corruption and violence.
Taking into consideration Afghanistan’s strategic geographic location and natural resources could make it a hub for international trade. Using American troops to enforce security while bringing in economists, peacekeepers and educators would enable the local people to trust and participate in their government. This way, the U.S. is not seen as abandoning its responsibilities in rebuilding a war-torn nation and is also empowering the Afghan people to take part in their own government. The troops should focus on working with the Afghan military to train them and restore the law and order while United Nations experts would go in to rebuild the economy and rehabilitate the people. This approach is more time consuming and involves multiple stages with multiple stakeholders. This method would remove a heavy financial burden from the United States and redistribute it within International Organizations like the IMF and World Bank. Additionally, by slowly and strategically removing troops, the Taliban would also succumb to the negotiations to maintain peace in the country. Though this does not remove all foreign forces from the Afghanistan, it is a way to open up dialogue and ensure cooperation.
The United States should also set measurable goals for Afghanistan. For every goal that is met, an additional layer of troops would be removed. Goals such as increasing employment rates, or ensuring 80% of students are back in school, and economy is revitalized by 5% yearly. With American presence still in Afghanistan, security wouldn’t be something solely provided by the obdurate Afghan military. Most of the literature on reconstruction efforts place a greater emphasis on the security and economy streams, but I think, in the case of Afghanistan, greater emphasis on the social aspects would prove to be more effective. Critics of this approach would undoubtedly mention the extended time commitment to launch this approach, however, I think this is better than the alternative which would to risk attacks from terrorist groups. The Taliban also demanded a removal of foreign presence as a demand for a peace treaty, so we would need to reexamine other ways to give them their sovereignty.
The United States is committed to the security and protection of the American people and to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. As such, the main concern with the expedient removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is that it jeopardizes American national security. I, thus, recommend the United States strategically reduce troops over an extended period of time and reallocate resources to work towards the reconstruction of its economy and rehabilitation of its citizens.
________ Agree _________ Disagree _________ Let’s Discuss
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