BACKGROUND: On November 23, the lower house of the Afghan parliament approved by an overwhelming 152-5 vote the two status-of-forces agreements that will permit some 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year, when the current agreements expire. Newly elected President Ashraf Ghani, who signed the documents as soon as he assumed office on September 30, welcomed the vote and called on the upper house to rapidly follow suit, which would bring the agreements into force.
The vote proved uncontroversial despite the media leaks a few days earlier by the Obama administration that the President had authorized more flexible rules-of-engagement for U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan in 2015 than had originally been expected. In addition to training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and fighting al-Qaeda-affected terrorists in Afghanistan, the White House has acceded to Pentagon requests to allow the U.S. forces that will serve in the new Operation Resolute Support (replacing the now ending Operation Enduring Freedom) to provide air support and other combat assistance to Afghan forces under serious threat from the Taliban.
In background briefings, White House officials struggled to explain that they were not giving the Pentagon a blank check, that the U.S. military would not engage in routine patrols or regularly provide air support for Afghan forces, that only senior U.S. officers could authorize attacks on Taliban forces threatening Afghan but not U.S. forces, and that U.S. forces in Afghanistan next year would conduct combat “operations” but not combat “missions.” The Pentagon is currently writing the specific orders defining the new rules of engagement.
Several factors apparently drove the U.S. decision. First, President Ghani and other Afghan officials, as well as U.S. field commanders, had requested the expanded support. Whereas former President Hamid Karzai had soured on the U.S. military presence and sought to constrain its activities, Ghani has expressed a desire for greater U.S military support and has removed Karzai’s prohibition against Afghan commanders calling in U.S. air strikes, which Karzai blamed for killing many civilians. Karzai’s former presidential rival and now government partner, newly appointed Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah has also generally supported a greater U.S. role in Afghanistan than desired by Karzai.
Second, the collapse of the incompletely U.S.-trained Iraqi army in the face of the offensive of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist movement has reminded many observers of the dangers of reducing support for the ANSF prematurely. Unlike their Afghan counterparts, Iraqi politicians could not come to an agreement about permitting the planned large U.S. training mission to remain in their country, which may have contributed to their poor performance against the IS, which is gaining some support among the Taliban and other Islamist militants. Thousands of U.S. force have now returned to Iraq to resume that training and advising mission. Large-scale air strikes by U.S. drones and fighter bombers might have helped prevent the Taliban offensives in September against Sangin in Helmand and Ajrestan in Ghazni province.
IMPLICATIONS: Assessing the performance of the ANSF this year has been difficult since the declining U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has resulted in less Pentagon data being published. In public, U.S. and NATO officials have expressed confidence in the ANSF, and the most recent U.S. Defense Department “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” published in October 2014, offers a favorable evaluation of the ANSF’s recent performance.
Yet, the Taliban has pressed the ANSF hard in 2014, the first year that Afghan forces operated largely independently of U.S. forces. Thus far, more than 4,600 government troops have died in combat this year, a higher level than for all of 2013, which the second highest U.S. commander in Afghanistan termed “unsustainable.” The number of civilians killed by the Taliban is also higher. Both Afghan and U.S. officials cited concerns about these losses when justifying renewed use of U.S. air strikes this and next year.
Despite the enhanced rules of engagement, the administration did not follow the advice of some military commanders to stretch out the planned NATO troop drawdown. President Obama still seems determined to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in early 2017. The current timetable, which Obama announced this May, will see the number of U.S. soldiers fall to 9,800 by the end of this year (1,800 will focus on fighting terrorists such as al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, while the remainder will concentrate on training and equipping the ANSF). About 5,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to remain in Afghanistan by the end of 2015, and after 2016 there will be only approximately 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to a security assistance mission operating out of the U.S. Embassy.
The smaller number of NATO forces, perhaps half as many as U.S. forces, are expected to follow a comparable drawdown. For now, Italy will lead the international forces in western Afghanistan, Germany those in the north, and Turkey will serve as the lead nation for the foreign forces based in Kabul. U.S. commanders will remain in charge of the advising and training mission in the eastern and southern regions, where the Taliban insurgency has traditionally been strongest. On November 7, Jens Stoltenberg, who became NATO’s new Secretary General on October 1, visited Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan and met with the country’s new government leaders. He pledged further support for Afghanistan, but NATO’s attention has been moving back to Europe, where Russia’s new assertiveness is challenging core NATO principles.
The other elements of the administration’s Afghan strategy – promoting regional economic integration, countering narcotics trafficking, and promoting political and civil rights—remain in place but with reduced U.S. funding and presidential attention. In some cases, it looks like China and Russia, either individually or through the SCO, may assume a greater role in supporting these non-combat missions.
Whereas the U.S. and its NATO allies are decreasing their military and other presence in Afghanistan and neighboring Central Asia, China and Russia have been increasing their regional activities. Russia continues to expand its economic presence in Afghanistan, renew ties with various Afghan leaders, and strengthen the capacity of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Although the U.S. will no longer purchase Russian helicopters for the Afghan Air Force, India has agreed to pay Russia even more money to send weapons to the ANSF. Russia has even begun to develop military ties with Pakistan, perhaps the most important foreign actor in Afghanistan.
China has launched an unprecedented diplomatic campaign regarding Afghanistan, including appointing a Special Envoy to that country, hosting the fourth ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Conference in Beijing, and pledging more economic and diplomatic support. For example, Chinese officials have been trying to reduce tensions between the new governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For his part, President Ghani made his first state visit to Beijing and is eager to deepen economic ties with China.
CONCLUSIONS: The Asia Foundation’s latest comprehensive annual survey of Afghan public opinion offered both positive and negative results. A majority of Afghans believe their country is heading in the right direction and hold more favorable opinions of the ANSF even as they continue to complain about corruption, insecurity, unemployment, and political infighting among Afghan politicians. They welcome the foreign assistance they have received but fear that the U.S. and other countries will again abandon them. Of course, polling data in these other foreign countries show a much more negative assessment of the results of the decade-long international intervention in Afghanistan, with a general Western military desire to avoid any future military adventures in Eurasia in the future. Securing additional U.S. and NATO military support for Afghanistan beyond the modest levels now authorized will prove challenging but probably essential.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: U.S. Department of State, via Flickr)