Soldiers on mission in Helmand Afghanistan mountains

By John Ubaldi,

America’s war against terrorism has been focused almost exclusively on ISIS. Little attention has been paid to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

But just like Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan is an important frontline state in the battle against international terrorism. More U.S. forces are deployed to that region than to any other area where the United States stations combat troops.

U.S. military personnel are battling a number of Islamic terror organizations, including the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS. Afghanistan’s southern neighbor is a nuclear-armed Pakistan, which creates a high level of tension with its neighbor India. All of this activity foments a high level of hostility in the region.

More US Troops Are Needed in Afghanistan

Just last month, General John Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he needs several thousand more troops to break the “stalemate” in the fight against terrorist organizations in that country. Although the official combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014, the U.S. has about 8,500 troops in that country, along with another 5,000 troops from other countries.

Afghanistan poses a complex set of problems for President Trump; these problems have no easy answers. Nevertheless, the new administration needs to take a long-range strategic approach to those problems as it moves forward.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan would almost inevitably result in the collapse of the Afghan state. That collapse would inadvertently create a power vacuum in which terrorist organizations could reconstitute themselves. There would be increased regional instability and greater long-term geopolitical turmoil with Russia and China.

Is History Repeating Itself in Afghanistan?

History can be a guide to the future. During a December 2009 West Point address, President Obama declared that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of his surge of forces in that country. But soon thereafter, he indicated that the U.S. would begin withdrawing forces in 2011.

At the end of 2014, President Obama stated, “Our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

Unfortunately for the U.S., the situation on the ground was not favorable to a military pullout. The vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal gave the Taliban the impetus to go on the offensive and gain more ground inside Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. That vacuum also allowed ISIS to co-opt local militants into joining the conflict against the United States.

In his essay, “How Trump Should Manage Afghanistan,” Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, said it is “important for the Trump administration to avoid some past U.S. missteps, such as, especially, publicizing a fixed set of deadlines to withdraw U.S. forces.”

Jones proposed instead that the United States “should retain a small military force in the country at or slightly above the current level of 8,400 U.S. soldiers, along with its current diplomatic, intelligence and development footprint.”

Obama’s pledge to leave Afghanistan evoked stark memories of the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Previously, the U.S. had supported anti-Soviet forces there since the late 1970s.

Following the Red Army’s withdrawal in defeat, the United States lost interest and stopped providing military and economic assistance to Afghan opposition groups. Afghanistan then deteriorated into a bloody civil war. This civil war led to the rise of the Taliban and allowed al-Qaeda to establish a sanctuary from which to plan the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Deadlines Only Embolden Our Adversaries

The deadlines set by Obama also signaled to Afghanistan’s neighbors, most notably Pakistan, that they should plan for the day when the United States leaves the region. A full withdrawal would allow Pakistan’s chief intelligence agency, the Directorate General for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to provide a safe haven for the Taliban and to collude with this terrorist organization in shaping the region.

A premature U.S. withdrawal would doom any prospect for peace. The Taliban has no incentive to reach any sort of peace agreement. Once the U.S. military is gone, the Taliban knows that its tactical battlefield success and bargaining position will greatly improve.

The only way for the United States to reshape policy in Afghanistan is to keep a durable military, diplomatic and intelligence presence in the country. With a continued U.S. presence in the region, the next step would be to form a sensible and realistic strategy.

It is a little-known fact that Trump is the third U.S. president who has to deal with Afghanistan. That’s because the lion’s share of attention is focused on defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But just because Afghanistan is not in the news doesn’t make the problem go away.

US Needs a Long-Term Strategy for Afghanistan

If the U.S. is to succeed in Afghanistan, it needs a long-term strategic policy. That strategy must include a signal from Trump to Pakistan and the region that the U.S. is not retreating. The countries in the region need to work with the United States to build an enduring political, economic and security framework for Afghanistan. Chaos is not beneficial to anyone.

To bring stability to Afghanistan, the Trump administration will need to enlist Saudi Arabia to cajole Pakistan’s cooperation. Otherwise, the U.S. will continue to target al- Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Pakistan. The May 2016 death of Taliban leader Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in Baluchistan, Pakistan is one such example.

As the Trump administration focuses on defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the president should also incorporate Afghanistan and Pakistan in a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS.

A major U.S. withdrawal from the region would only increase terrorism and set in motion further competition between the regional nuclear powers of Pakistan and India. That is not in the interests of the United States. A withdrawal would be to our detriment and we would soon come to regret it.