President Barack Obama has again changed course and decided to keep troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2015. Policymakers are concerned Afghanistan will suffer the fate of Iraq if the US leaves. Spencer Kimball reports.
In late May 2014, President Barack Obama laid out his timetable for withdrawal. Nearly all American troops were scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan by the time he left the White House at the end of 2016. Fewer than 1,000 US service members would remain in the country to staff a security liaison office in Kabul.
Two weeks after Obama's announcement, Iraq nearly collapsed. The country's security forces evaporated in the face of advancing "Islamic State" (IS) militants. Washington intervened with airstrikes later that summer, halting the militants push toward Baghdad. The White House is now engaged in an open-ended air campaign in Iraq and Syria without any additional congressional authorization.
"It's generally acknowledged that it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq [in 2003]," James Dobbins, who served as the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told DW.
"But having invaded Iraq, having created a mess, having created the conditions that led to regional imbalance and increased radicalization, it was a mistake to have just walked away from it," Dobbins said. "Wars aren't over because you say they're over."
Dobbins and others in the United States are concerned that Afghanistan faces a similar future should Washington withdraw prematurely. In late September, Afghan forces defending the city of Kunduz collapsed and the Taliban captured a provincial capital for the first time since the 2001 US-led invasion.
Afghan forces ultimately recaptured the city with the support of US advisers and airstrikes. One of the strikes hit a hospital staffed by Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 civilians and injuring another 37.
"Kunduz really represents a new aspect of the war for the Taliban," said Thomas Johnson, an expert on the war in Afghanistan at the US Naval Postgraduate School. "This has been a rural insurgency throughout, and the Taliban now taking it to a provincial capital is really a sea change in their strategy."
'Islamic State' in Afghanistan
Citing this fragile security situation, Obama effectively tore up his timetable for withdrawal on Thursday. Nearly 10,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2016. The number will be reduced to 5,500 by the time Obama leaves office in January 2017. The US troops will advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.
"What he's doing is leaving the door open for the next commander-in-chief to have the option of maintaining troops, removing troops, doing what he or she sees fit," said Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace.
According to Johnson, the threat of "Islamic State" has changed the minds of many in Washington about the US troop presence in Afghanistan. IS recruiters are present in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the United Nations reported in September, citing Afghan government sources.
"This new ISIL dynamic is quite troubling and they have their eyes toward Central Asia," Johnson said, using an alternative acronym for the terrorist group. "You're seeing a lot of congressmen that are saying we can't let what happened in Iraq happen in Afghanistan."
But the force levels the White House has decided to keep in Afghanistan aren't sufficient, Johnson continued. Too many of the US troops are focused on training Afghan security forces.
"It's not going to be able to improve the Afghan national security apparatus that we've now been trying to train for 14 years and there's still major problems with them," he said.
Instead, more US forces should be devoted to counterterrorism, specifically rooting out "Islamic State" militants, according to Johnson. Given the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan among the American people, it's unlikely that additional forces will be deployed.
"Afghanistan is an unwinnable war," Johnson said. "We've spent near a trillion dollars, we've lost 2,500 people, we spent an awful lot of blood and treasure and the country is still dysfunctional."
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