The war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year, is largely out of Americans’ sight and out of mind — a conflict in a faraway place against enemies, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, that have been supplanted by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as the face of terrorism.
But there’s big risk in neglecting Afghanistan. During testimony this month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, was asked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., whether the U.S. would be vulnerable to an attack planned and directed from Afghanistan if the U.S. withdrew its troops. The response: “Yes, senator, definitely.”
ISIL has a foothold there that isn’t nearly as entrenched as in Syria and Iraq, but it’s a foothold nonetheless. In eastern Afghanistan, ISIL is recruiting and training, developing a potential to prepare and launch attacks on the West. And while the ranks of Al-Qaida have been diminished, the group maintains a presence in Afghanistan, waiting for a time when the country again becomes real estate for recruiting, training and terror-launching.
So far, President Trump has said virtually nothing about Afghanistan. That has to change: With the Taliban’s annual spring offensive just weeks away, the clock is ticking on the Trump administration to devise and explain its blueprint for dealing with Afghanistan.
Trump can start by fulfilling Nicholson’s request for more soldiers to build on the 8,400 U.S. troops already there. The mission shouldn’t change: American troops launch counterterrorism operations against Islamic militants and advise Afghan soldiers so they can secure their own country. Nicholson has said he needs “a few thousand more troops”; he wasn’t more specific.
The reason for ramping up troop strength is simple: U.S., NATO and Afghan forces aren’t winning. “Mr. chairman, I believe we’re in a stalemate,” Nicholson told Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the committee hearing. Afghan security forces are trying to take the fight to the Taliban, Nicholson said, but they’re doing more losing than winning. Today, the Afghan government controls a little more than half of the country; a year ago, it controlled 72 percent. To turn the tide, Afghan security forces — soldiers, commandos, police — need more training.
The administration’s game plan for Afghanistan cannot, however, center solely on beefing up military presence. The country’s chances of survival rest on the viability of its so-called “unity government” in Kabul, and right now that government is anything but unified.
Kabul’s power-sharing government was the product of a pact brokered in 2014 by then-Secretary of State John Kerry to resolve the country’s election impasse. Ashraf Ghani won the election, but his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed he was victimized by election fraud. Kerry got both sides to agree to a deal that made Ghani the president and Abdullah the chief executive — essentially a junior partner.
The partnership soon soured. Abdullah has accused Ghani of not forging ahead with government reforms and didn’t hide his frustration last summer when Ghani refused to meet him for three months.
The rift is tailor-made for Trump the Dealmaker. Trump and his team should broker a reconciliation that gets Ghani and Abdullah to stop squabbling and start governing. Afghanistan cannot afford the instability that comes with a fractured government.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE