Spiraling violence in war-torn Middle Eastern and North African nations has obscured the unfolding story in Afghanistan. But successive setbacks have refocused attention on that war and reopened the question of U.S. policy.
Despite being routed right after the U.S.-led invasion 14 years ago, the Taliban has shown remarkable resiliency. Most recently, the extremists recaptured Kunduz, the last Taliban city to fall in 2001.
Some of Kunduz reportedly has been recaptured. But scores lost their lives, including 22 patients and staff at a Doctors Without Borders hospital that was mistakenly struck by U.S. aircraft. The organization said it may be a war crime, but there is no logic behind the charge that the U.S. would purposely target a hospital. Rather, it appears to be a grave military mishap, according to Gen. John F. Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the strike came because of a "U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command."
Appropriately, Campbell has ordered retraining and an investigation. The results should be transparent, and those responsible need to be held accountable.
The fall of Kunduz was just the latest evidence of the ineffectiveness of Afghan security forces, despite the blood, treasure and time the U.S. had spent in training, advising and assisting them.
Pentagon policymakers need to discover why efforts at building foreign forces have failed in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. But more immediately, President Obama should rethink his near-term strategy on Afghanistan.
Campbell was candid on U.S. troop levels. "Based on conditions on the ground, I do believe we have to provide our senior leadership options different from the current plan we are going with," Campbell told the assembled senators. "The Afghan security forces have repeatedly shown that without key enablers and competent operational-level commanders, they cannot handle the fight alone in this stage of development."
Obama's current plan is to draw down to a force of about 1,000 by the end of 2016. Campbell has reportedly presented options of keeping the current force of about 10,000, as well as levels in between.
"It's not about numbers. It's about what needs to be done," Rebecca Zimmerman, an associate policy analyst at the RAND Corporation told an editorial writer. "And none of the things we need to get done are achievable if we reduce down to 1,000 folks."
Zimmerman, an expert on Afghanistan, added: "There is a fear of the 'Iraqification' of Afghanistan, that if we leave it will be overrun, and what that does to the narrative of American foreign policy is very damaging."
Indeed, more than Afghanistan is at stake if the Kabul-based government cannot combat the Taliban, let alone Al-Qaida and a rising Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) presence.
Obama's desire to draw down is understandable. But hard realities need to influence strategy, and it would be wise for the president to leave a more robust residual force in place.