The world’s attention is on Iraq and Syria right now, as the international response to ISIS terrorism gets into gear. US warplanes have been bombing the extremist organization for a couple of weeks now and the British government has just committed the RAF to join the operation. There’s no doubt that the ISIS crazies and their attempt to rebuild the medieval caliphate right in the middle of the world’s largest oil-producing region is a serious threat, and one that needs dealt with firmly before it can grow. But we also need to keep our eye on some other balls that are still in play.
Afghanistan, compared to the Middle East, suddenly seems out of the way. It isn’t. It borders some pretty significant countries, most notably Iran and Pakistan, and despite the progress and sacrifices of the last 13 years, it’s still a long way from stable. That fact was highlighted on September 25, when the disputed results of June’s presidential election were finally resolved in favor of contender Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. What matters for the US military is that Ghani’s victory means a key security agreement can now be signed.
The plan is for ISAF, the NATO-led coalition that’s been fighting the Taliban since 2001, to pull out most of its combat troops by the end of this year. That doesn’t mean all US troops will be leaving the country though. The Afghan National Army has come on a long way since it was founded with western help, but it’s still going to need training and mentoring teams for a few years. There’s also a requirement for US troops to guard key installations that face unusually high threat levels, like the embassy. Contractors now handle a lot of security duties in Kabul but nobody wants to see them take on everything. The plan has always included a reduced, but still vital, military presence after 2014.
The problem was the agreement wasn’t being signed. The US government and NATO negotiated a security agreement with outgoing president Hamid Karzai last year, but Karzai – who’s been a constant obstacle to real progress in the country – refused to sign it. Both of his possible replacements, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, promised to authorize the agreement “within days” of their inauguration, and the word is that’s on track to happen sometime next week.
The question some are asking is, “what’s the point in keeping a presence in Afghanistan?” Despite billions of dollars and hundreds of deaths, the country is still plagued with violence. The Taliban beheaded a dozen people in Ghazni Province just last week and still have a strong influence in many regions. Extremists seem to cross the Pakistani border at will. Is it worth investing any more resources there?
The answer, maybe unfortunately, is yes. If we don’t do everything we can to stabilize Afghanistan, there’s a possibility the Taliban could be back in power within a few years, and they’d be as implacably anti-western as ever. Pakistan itself isn’t as stable as it should be and that’s a nuclear weapon state. The last thing we need is another caliphate poised just a couple of hundred miles from a cache of nuclear weapons whose security isn’t all we might wish for.
The priority right now has to be ISIS, for a whole list of good reasons, but we can’t take our eye off Afghanistan. We did it once before, after invading Iraq in 2003, and the results were disastrous. Let’s not make the same mistake again.