Debate Magazine

American Strategy in Afghanistan After 2014

Posted on the 31 December 2012 by Shahalexander

The War on Terror has begun from Afghanistan, and 2014 is a strategic turning point as security responsibility will be transferred completely from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces. Terrorist activities get intensified, in view of coalition withdrawal. Afghanistan is not just a battle ground against terrorism. It is surrounded by critical strategic areas: resource rich Central Asia to the north, Iran to the west, and Indo-Pakistani nuclear rivalry to the east. Though President Barack Obama was skeptic to the Iraq War, he asserted that Afghanistan was the frontline of the War on Terror. In the lecture on US army strategy at Chatham House on June 6, General Raymond Odierno included Afghanistan into the Asia Pacific region as it is closely related to security in the Indian subcontinent. Obama’s rebalance to Asia shall not lower strategic implication of Afghanistan in US national security. Given such a unique geopolitical position that Afghanistan holds, counterterrorism operations in this country is a critical test to assess the validity of Obama’s strategic shift from the Middle east to Asia. Therefore, I would like to explore American strategy in Afghanistan after 2014.


Despite critical importance as I mentioned above, Afghanistan was not a key agenda during the presidential election. Ahmad Majidyar, Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute, points out the following reasons. The election focused on the economy, and this is reflected in current congressional conflict on the fiscal cliff. In addition, American voters were fed up with costs and casualties associated with the long war. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may not have talked on Afghan issue, but that does not erode US security interests in the Af-Pak region. In face of massive withdrawal of coalition troops in 2014, Taliban and Al Qaeda are reinvigorated. In order to curb the threats of insurgents, Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai reached the security partnership agreement in May to keep some military presence along the Af-Pak border and train counterterrorism troops of Afghanistan (“Reasons behind Obama and Romney's silence over Afghanistan”; BBC Persian; 6 November, 2012). NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said that 2014 Afghan presidential election will be a turning point for Afghan security (“Opening Remarks”; NATO Speeches and Transcripts; 12 November, 2012).
The war in Afghanistan is winnable, and the United States needs to overcome domestic annoyance. However, strategic adjustment is necessary. Let me talk about current situation in Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid, author of a famous book “Taliban”, comments that pessimism prevails among Afghan watchers around the world, but troops on the ground do not necessarily agree with them. One example is a comment by US Marine Major General Mark Gurganus, the regional commander for southwestern Afghanistan, saying, "We are still a province at war, but look at the progress that has been made in Helmand Province over the past three years." The Times editorial argues furthermore, "The Taliban has not retaken territory lost to coalition forces" (“We're Winning in Afghanistan”; Foreign Policy; October 24, 2012). However, drastic reduction of the troops will ruin such achievements. Afghan warlords like Ismail Khan of Herat are arming up for self defense, for fear of security vacuum after Western troop pull out (“Afghan Warlord’s Call to Arms Rattles Officials”; New York Times; November 12, 2012).
Two questions need to be answered to manage Afghanistan after 2014. First, how many troops should stay there continually? Second, what kind of qualitative changes are required in American approaches to Afghanistan? But to answer the above questions, it is essential to understand why the US troops should remain there, despite domestic annoyance with the long war and Obama’s interest in Asia rather tan the Middle East. American strategists recommend a recent article by Kimberly and Frederick Kagan that articulates the reason for continual US military presence in Afghanistan.
The Kagans argue that sufficient troop level must be maintained in order to avoid terrorist attacks like what happened in Benghazi, Libya. Also, it is US presence in Afghanistan that enables counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. Terrorist bases in South Asia are concentrated along the Af-Pak border area such as the Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan, and Konar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan. Without ground bases, the United States will fight against terrorists with the following three: armed drone planes, parachute air borne, and manned aircrafts. The former two have problems with outreach and safe return. The third option of jet planes flies too fast to identify the target. Advanced technologies are no substitute for frontline ground bases. Furthermore, ground bases must be protected from unexpected attacks. Therefore, the Kagans insist that the United States maintain 68,000 soldiers for there objectives. They argue that defeatism and “light footprint” strategy will embolden terrorists, which will lead to more serious catastrophes for US national security (“Why U.S. troops must stay in Afghanistan”; Washington Post; November 24, 2012). Furthermore, Max Boot, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that helicopter operations will require aerial refueling without sufficient ground bases. That poses considerable constraints on the mission (“Steep U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan brings substantial risks”; Washington Post; December 24, 2012).
Their opinion wins trans-ideological support, and Washington Post editorial board questions why US troop level under Obama’s plan falls short of the Kagan recommendation (“A U.S. future in Afghanistan?”; Washington Post: December 2, 2012). We must consider political aspects, in addition to military strategy. The United States plans to expand diplomatic missions to Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif. Obama’s plan to cut troop level in Afghanistan drastically is contradictory to such policy objectives. Also, Obama’s troop cut makes it increasingly difficult to persuade European allies to keep sufficient presence. The problem is, Karzai wants less foreign armed forces to stay in Afghanistan, despite fragile security (“U.S. force in Afghanistan may be smaller than expected after 2014”; Los Angels Times; December 11, 2012).
Mutual distrust between Karzai and the West must be resolved. While the coalition forces attacked innocent civilians by mistake, the Karzai administration fails to improve governance in Afghanistan. Ransom imprisonment happens frequently, drug and natural resource trafficking prevails, and government officials monopolize development business through nepotism. As a result, people discredit the government. In view of these problems, Sarah Chayes and Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that the quality of the Afghan National Security Forces counts much more than the quantity. In addition, they raise critical concerns with Pakistan’s dark connections with Afghan terrorists. For fear of encirclement by India, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) helps Afghan insurgents to prevent the Indo-Afghan partnership. Considering deleterious impacts of ISI activities, Chayes and Grare even insists on imposing sanctions on Pakistan for terrorist sponsorship (“Avoiding Catastrophic Failure in Afghanistan”; Global Ten Challenges and Opportunities for the President 2013—Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; November 29, 2012). Quite ironically, ISI’s ties with terrorists harm Pakistani security. Taliban in Pakistan frequently kill Shiites, and 90 people were wounded and 5 were murdered by their bomb attack in Dera Ismail Khan on the Ashura holiday, which is a crucial ceremony for Shiites (“Pakistani Taliban claim responsibility for bomb attack on Shia procession”; Guardian; 25 November 2012).
As security responsibility will be handed over to Kabul in 2014, the global community needs to refocus on Afghanistan. In addition to political and military involvement as mentioned above, much broader regional framework expanding to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent must be found. Mishandling of Afghan security after 2014 will ruin achievements that America and European allies have made. Furthermore, it will shatter American strategy both in Asia and the Middle East. 

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