For centuries, from the reign of Alexander the Great and Mongol invasions to the Soviet takeover and post-9/11, war has been a way of life in Afghanistan. With the Taliban entrenched in the south and the Afghan army too weak to stand on its own, it’s clear the country will endure wartime for years to come — a reality reflected in President Barack Obama’s decision to leave 8,400 U.S. troops there after he departs from the White House.
Some Americans will wince at that decision. It comes more than 14 years after U.S troops first arrived to dismantle al-Qaida, and well after Obama’s campaign pledges to end the war there before he left office. As U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, put it following Obama’s announcement, “Today, the longest war in American history just got longer.”
That said, Obama has watched Iraq deteriorate since he withdrew U.S. troops — and then had to deploy fresh forces to shore up Iraqis in their battle against Islamic State. His decision not to make the same mistake in Afghanistan is the right call. It acknowledges the threat not just from a resilient Taliban insurgency and an al-Qaida that shows signs of regrouping, but also the attempts by the Islamic State to make Afghanistan its latest seedbed for terror.
The Islamic State has shown its capacity to stake out new beachheads throughout North Africa and Asia, far beyond its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. In Libya, its fighters fortified themselves in a coastal city, while in Egypt they’ve planted their flag in the Sinai Peninsula. And the devastating attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport last month that killed more than 40 people was carried out by suicide bombers from southern Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — three places where disaffected, impoverished Muslims are ripe for Islamic State’s propaganda.
In Afghanistan, Islamic State militants are a nascent but growing presence in eastern swatches of the country, where they carry out attacks against both the Taliban and local government forces. In January, they killed seven Afghan security troops in an attack near the Pakistani Consulate in the eastern city of Jalalabad, their first major assault in an Afghan city.
Keeping American troops in Afghanistan enables the U.S. to conduct intelligence operations on the group’s Afghan affiliate, and ultimately to prevent it from firming up a foothold there. But it also gives the Afghan government and security forces the helping hand they need to battle militants no matter the stripe — Taliban, al-Qaida or Islamic State. In announcing his decision, Obama acknowledged that “Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be.”
Obama’s Iraq experience showed him what can happen when U.S. troops pull out en masse and leave poorly trained, poorly equipped local security forces to safeguard citizens. When Islamic State fighters rolled into northern and western Iraq in 2014, many Iraqi soldiers and police dropped their guns and fled. The U.S. troops Obama has had to dispatch to Iraq are giving Iraqi forces the advice and air support they need if they are to eradicate the Islamic State.
The lesson here: We’ve long opposed arbitrary White House deadlines or other timetables on U.S. involvement, troop strength or even broad strategies. Those are constructs of American politics, not of prevailing in war. If and when the U.S. does leave Afghanistan, the timing should be prompted by clear evidence that Afghans can achieve a lasting political resolution. That’s likely only after their enemies’ defeat.
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