On October 23, 2014, Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal became the first American casualty in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State. Only four days later, the American and British militaries handed over full control of their bases in Helmand, a southern province of Afghanistan and historical Taliban stronghold, to the Afghan military.
With the U.S. drawing down its campaign in Afghanistan, but ratcheting up its activities in Iraq and Syria, the question must be asked: will Afghanistan succumb to pressures in the same way Iraq did, and ultimately require renewed U.S. intervention several years down the road?
A cursory examination of the state of Afghanistan indicates that the answer to this question will likely be an affirmative one. With a diminutive formal economy, weak democratic institutions, an immeasurably corrupt civil service, and unsteady security forces, it is hard to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s post-drawdown future.
Government revenue stands at close to zero, ensuring that the state is reliant almost entirely on foreign aid. The federal budget of $7.6 billion already faces significant shortfalls, and aid flows over the next decade will assuredly grow scarcer as the world’s attention shifts elsewhere. Following the conclusion of a laughingly fraudulent sham of an election that produced a national unity government between run-off candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, political infighting will likely persist, hindering any real efforts at reform.
Moving on to the country’s security apparatus, in a country of only 30 million, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) boast 352,000 men in uniform. Coalition forces have high hopes for the performance of the ANSF, given the extensive training and material support it has received from coalition forces over the past 13 years. But similar hope once existed for the Iraqi security forces as well, and it is well-documented how that turned out.
Where it was once thought that Iraq was capable of standing on its own—with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even rejecting the continued presence of American soldiers past 2011—recent events have shown that the decision to allow coalition forces to depart was a premature one.
The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has plunged Iraq into a new round of chaos, with the predominantly Sunni Anbar province on the verge of falling into insurgent hands. The Iraqi military, touted as a capable and professional force in 2011 as the US was withdrawing from Iraq, has failed and is now reliant on Shia militias to hold key cities and towns.
Despite ample funding and training from the United States, Iraqi security forces are reeling from a series of losses that show little signs of abating. Even as American airstrikes claim dozens of IS soldiers, the rebel group’s advances continue, often with the assistance of US-supplied weapons and equipment abandoned by Iraqi forces in their retreat.
Given the disastrous result of the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, it is little wonder that many are concerned about the Afghan military meeting a similar fate at the hands of the Taliban and its allied militias in Afghanistan. With Afghan security forces sustaining such heavy casualties in recent months that the Afghan government has decided to no longer release such statistics to the public, any argument to the contrary finds itself on shaky footing.
While Afghanistan has agreed to allow almost 12,000 foreign soldiers (including 9,800 Americans) to remain in the country until at least 2016, the more fundamental weaknesses of the Afghan state make it exceedingly likely that the country will not succeed on its own.
More likely is the prospect that Afghanistan will remain mired in protracted conflict until its inevitable collapse, with the U.S. unwilling to recommit any greater number of troops than the 9,800 currently agreed upon, regardless of what happens.
Should the ANSF fail to check recent Taliban gains, the Afghan government may find itself controlling major population centers and little else. Such a state of affairs does not typically bode well for an incumbent regime.