On May 23, General John Campbell, the current commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, told reporters that there’s “overwhelming support” to keep a strong presence in the country for at least another 18 months, and probably longer. Assuming Gen. Campbell wasn’t straying off the reservation, that’s a strong indicator that there’s going to be a US and NATO presence there for quite a while.
When I left Afghanistan in 2011, all the talk around ISAF HQ was about how the mission would be winding down through 2014. The USA and UK both planned to have their combat troops out by then and restrict themselves to an advisory role. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The Afghan national security forces (ANSF) haven’t made as much progress as had been hoped, especially the police, and they’re still a long way from being able to defeat the Taliban on their own. That basically leaves two choices for the lead ISAF nations: keep a larger presence than planned, or pull out and leave them to it.
The reality, of course, is that there’s only one option, and that’s to give the ANSF whatever support they need to keep them in the fight while continuing the efforts to boost their capabilities. Walking away isn’t really an option, for two reasons. Firstly, it would leave a very destabilized and vulnerable Afghanistan, which would probably fall to the Taliban within a couple of years. That would provide a secure base for islamists to launch a campaign against Pakistan’s government, which is a less than reliable ally anyway; faced with a full-on insurgency, it would either fall or switch to full-on appeasement mode. Given Pakistan’s arsenal, either would be bad news. Forget Iran, which hates Salafist extremism as much as we do; the most likely place for islamists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon is Pakistan.
So, if we’re going to keep supporting the ANSF, in the hope that one day they’ll be able to handle the war themselves, what’s the best way to do it? There’s no public appetite to keep large numbers of troops on the ground, so big camps like Bastion and Leatherneck aren’t going to be handed back to ISAF control. More than a few advisors are needed though. We need to be supporting the Afghans with the things they don’t have the money or skills to do for themselves; precision artillery, air and helicopter support, special forces and intelligence. These are all expensive assets, but in terms of the effect they have they’re actually pretty good value for money. When it comes to patrolling, the ANA are mostly good enough to handle that, and they’re often better at understanding cultural issues and spotting unusual patterns than western troops are. They’re still largely an infantry army, though, so until they develop the full range of capabilities they’re going to need our support.
There’s no doubt the ANA can develop into a force capable of containing or even defeating the Taliban – the old Soviet-trained Afghan Army held out a surprisingly long time after 40th Army withdrew in 1989 – but it’s not going to happen overnight. The police have even further to go before they’ll be fully effective. That means it’s not a good idea to be setting end dates for US or NATO involvement; we need to commit to staying there for as long as it takes. On the plus side, that means we’ll maintain a pool of people familiar with the environment and what’s happening there – and we’ll avoid the nightmare of Salafist nutters with a Pakistani nuke.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.