U.S. Army Spc. Devon Boxa, 7-158th Aviation Regiment, admires the Afghanistan landscape out the back door of her CH-47D Chinook helicopter
After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are undoubtedly war weary. This weariness, however, is not likely to keep the United States from involvement in foreign conflicts, nor should it.
While full combat operations by the US ended in Afghanistan in 2014, a point often referred to as the “end” of the war in Afghanistan by the media, the fight still rages on in the central Asian nation. The Taliban continues along its path of destruction and violence through the country, with recent examples being the assassination of powerful police chief Matiullah Khan in Kabul, as well as the continuous raids by Taliban militants on cities throughout the nation. Indeed, it would be a grave mistake on America’s part if continued military support was not provided to the Afghan government in these dangerous circumstances, and for the moment it seems as if the American government is avoiding that pitfall.
One needs only to look at the situation in Iraq as an example of the consequences faced when neglecting to provide a sufficient residual force to ensure a country’s stability. During the American withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Barack Obama failed to reach an agreement on keeping a small number of American forces in Iraq to aid in the protection of the country from extremist groups. The consequences of the agreement’s failure did not fully materialize for a few years afterwards. To be sure, terrorist cells were active in the nation in the period after the US withdrawal and during the rise of the Islamic State, but such groups were rather typical in a country that had faced nearly a decade of sectarian violence and decades more of tyranny under a leader like Saddam Hussein. At its beginning, few outside the realm of international affairs knew of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the successor to an al-Qaeda affiliate that attempted to establish a Sunni Islamic emirate during the American occupation.
The advent of the Syrian Civil War changed the dynamic profoundly. ISIL (now given attention by the mainstream media and commonly referred to as ISIS) had a fertile breeding ground: a lawless swath of countryside in eastern Syria. Fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave the group battle experience and prepared it for an action once seen as unthinkable: the near complete takeover of northern Iraq.
Can the same happen in Afghanistan? Will the Taliban bring back the hard-line Islamic state mentality of 1996-2001? Can ISIL (now controlling portions of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and finding an ally in Boko Haram of Nigeria) bring its reign of terror to the nation?
Let us address the question of the Taliban first. Though the possibility of a resurgence in the Taliban to a large-scale fighting force cannot and must not be discounted, it is unlikely that they will regain the power they had in the late 20th century. Afghanistan’s government is relatively more stable, and the Taliban’s overall influence has waned. The Taliban’s capability to wreak havoc through raids in towns and terrorist attacks in cities, however, is assured. To leave the Taliban to its own devices is a foolish exercise, and thankfully the Afghan government is not doing so.
Now to tackle the question of IS involvement in Afghanistan. While IS has established a presence in the nation, its capability to become the “premier” terror group in the country is doubtful. The Taliban has a long, ingrained history in the country. While becoming a part of IS may appeal to fighters disillusioned with the Taliban’s leadership or those seeking to become part of the effort to establish the new “caliphate,” most Taliban fighters do not share the same vision as those involved in IS. Many in the Taliban only seek the establishment of strict sharia law in Afghanistan, and are not focused on political exploits in other parts of the world. Indeed, a rivalry between IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar has led to numerous spats over the past few months.
So what should, and what is, the United States doing to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the next Iraq? Currently, it seems that the answers to both questions are the same. The Obama administration, seemingly learning from its mistakes in Iraq, is moving towards allowing additional American troops to remain in the country. With the Taliban and the new Afghan government led by its new President Ashraf Ghani once again failing to enter peace talks, the knowledge of an effective American presence remaining in Afghanistan may prove a potent disincentive for Taliban terrorist activity. Indeed, President Ghani has already proven himself a more amiable ally than former President Hamid Karzai, in part by removing some restrictions imposed by the former Afghan president on American military operations.
Of course, President Obama is likely to encounter strong resistance among the American population for keeping more American forces in Afghanistan, and much of that resistance will likely be from his own party. Such criticism, however, should be kept in the context of the situation at hand. If Afghanistan’s government falters and goes the way of Iraq and Syria, a nation at a crucial crossroads of the world will become yet another breeding ground for terrorism and instability, which is a scenario that the United States simply cannot allow.