The war in Afghanistan, which begin immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the bombing missions for which began on October 7 of that year, has dragged on interminably due in no small part to the administration of then-President George W. Bush to divert precious military resources away from South Asia and towards Iraq. While no one can state with absolute certainty what would have happened had the war in Iraq not diverted those resources, including a large number of U.S. Special Operations Forces, it is reasonable to suggest that the situation in Afghanistan could have evolved differently, to the benefit of the U.S. and its allies. In any event, the conflict in Afghanistan has lasted longer than initially assumed, and the Taliban insurgents appear poised to eventually take over much, if not all of the country once the American presence there is drastically reduced. The Obama Administration’s current emphasis on using air power to target insurgents in Syria and Iraq (the Islamic State and remnants of the al-Nusra movement, Syria’s al-Qaeda branch) will not succeed, if tried, in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban, with the support of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, successfully conquered almost all of Afghanistan during the 1990s, and could reclaim its control over the country in the not-too-distant future.
The student’s debate topic does not specify on which side of the question – should U.S. forces continue to fight in Afghanistan – he will argue. What follows, therefore, will provide some commentary appropriate for either side of the debate.
Senator, Presidential candidate, and President Barack Obama was a staunch opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, arguing the decision to invade that Middle Eastern country represented a “war of choice,” in contrast to the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, which he labeled a “war of necessity.” The Taliban, when in power, had proven extreme in its methods of governing, routinely carrying out mass executions, mutilating petty criminals and whipping or stoning to death women alleged to have been involved in extra-marital affairs or for simply appearing sexually promiscuous. That, however, was not the reason for the U.S. invasion in 2001. The Taliban had also been providing shelter for al-Qaeda, the terrorist movement founded and led by Usama bin Laden and, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its repeated refusal to evict or turn-over to the U.S. bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, the decision was made to proceed with an invasion. (One could note, although its relevance to this discussion is questionable, that U.S. special forces and CIA paramilitary officers to begin to coordinate broader military efforts with anti-Taliban Afghanistani movements in that country’s north, comprised primarily of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks)
Another factor that should be mentioned in any debate on whether to continue fighting in Afghanistan is the recent experience in Iraq. As noted, President Obama had opposed the U.S. role in Iraq, and made the removal of American forces from there a top priority. Rejecting advice from his military staff, and ignoring the warnings of his predecessor, George Bush, Obama proceeded to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, leaving no viable military response to anti-government insurgencies that opposed that country’s highly-polarizing president, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. Al-Maliki, a Shiite close to neighboring Iran, had similarly ignored all entreaties from the U.S. and others that he govern more judiciously and with much greater attention to the legitimate concerns of the country’s minority Sunni Muslims, who had ruled the nation under now-deposed (and executed) Saddam Hussein. The decision to withdraw all American forces left the door wide open to the anti-Shiite Islamic movements that have since seized the entire third of the country and which has carried on a siege of towns along the Iraq-Turkey border. In short, with no American rapid response forces in Iraq, and with the Iraqi Army ill-prepared to defend its country (pretty inexcusable given the years of training and billions of dollars-worth of equipment provided by the U.S.), Iraq is in a far worse situation today than at any previous point.
The “Iraq model” is instructive for those debating the situation in Afghanistan. While the Obama Administration announced on May 27, 2014, its intent to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as insurance against a Taliban conquest of Kabul, one can legitimately question whether such a small force will be capable of much more than defending that one city, leaving the rest of the country to the Taliban. If the tens of thousands of troops that have fought there at any one time has been incapable of defeating that insurgency, what prospect hath a residual force of under-10,000? So, the question of whether the United States should continue fighting in Afghanistan is complicated by the president’s commitment of relatively small number of troops. Obviously, the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), trained and equipped by the U.S. and British, is as incapable of defending its country from an Islamist insurgency as the Iraqi Army, so reliance on the ANA is unrealistic. If preventing the Taliban from regaining control of all of Afghanistan is in the U.S. national interest, than it must continue fighting there, and probably with more ground troops than President Obama has committed to that mission. If it is not in the U.S. national interest, then why keep even 9,800 soldiers and airmen there? The key to the debate is whether or not an Afghanistan ruled by a democratic or quasi-democratic government is vital to U.S. interests, and whether an Afghanistan ruled once again by the Taliban, with its inevitable alliances with terrorist organizations, is threatening to vital U.S. interests. If the first part of the question is answered in the affirmative, then the U.S. should continue fighting in Afghanistan. If the latter part of the question is answered in the negative, then pull all American forces out and respond to whatever military threat may arise from the reconstitution of al-Qaeda or from the establishment of an Islamic State branch in that country with military operations utilizing forces based outside of Afghanistan.