America's Longest War: Still No End In Sight

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U.S. army personnel keep watch at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan, in August 2015. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
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The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told Congress recently the war there is in a “stalemate,” and more troops are needed to break it.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Michael Kugelman (@michaelkugelman), deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, about the strategy going forward in Afghanistan after more than 15 years of fighting.

Interview Highlights

On General Nicholson’s testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee

“I was struck about how explicit he was about the need for more troops. He was very clear that there’d been some successes, there’s been progress in terms of the Afghan security forces. But he said again and again that we’re going to need thousands of more U.S. troops to be in that country to try to help. And, of course, it’s not necessarily the most politically popular thing to say in the United States where there has been a fair amount of war weariness for quite a few years.

“Right, though unfortunately, I think we do need to hear it. I always am a bit conflicted. On the one hand, an analyst of South Asia and of Afghanistan, but again as an American citizen. From the perspective of an analyst, things are really in bad shape in Afghanistan. I mean, as General Nicholson had said, you’ve got a number of terrorist groups there that are causing all kinds of damage. The Afghan security forces need a lot of help. You know, you have that, on the one hand, you have a resurgent al-Qaeda, you have a local faction of ISIS that should not be taken lightly. So, you have all that, and that suggests the need to have more U.S. support, if nothing else to provide a psychological boost to the Afghan forces. But on the other hand, as a U.S. citizen, I mean, I myself am very concerned that after all these years, after all the U.S. troops that have died, we still don’t really know why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan and, in some cases, dying in Afghanistan. It costs a lot of money to maintain U.S. troops in that country. You hear that at one point, it would cost about a million dollars per year to have one U.S. troop in Afghanistan. There’s a conflict between being an analyst on the one hand and being a U.S. citizen. It’s really hard to square that circle.”

On how terrorist groups got a foothold in Afghanistan, even with U.S. military presence

“There’s been a narrative in Washington over the last two years that al-Qaeda has essentially been decimated in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. And that the attention is really turned to other parts of the world. But the bottom line is, it’s a very rough neighborhood, not just Afghanistan, but the broader region. In Pakistan, you have sanctuaries for a number of terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. Al-Qaeda has never gone away. And you have a lot of other militant organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, also in Central Asia. They’re all cut from the same cloth. They’re all Islamic militant groups. They don’t all necessarily want to target the same people or places, but they all have differing levels of collaboration and, in many cases, are loyal to al-Qaeda. That’s the bottom line.”

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On how today is different from late ’90s and early 2000s

“Clearly, things have gotten worse in terms of the number of attacks and the potency of different terrorist groups. Obviously, it was a very different situation in the 1980s and 1990s, where in Afghanistan, you had a variety of groups that were fighting — that had been fighting — against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets left and after the Americans stopped being involved in the region, things got very complicated. There was a long and horrifically bloody civil war that culminated in, as you know, the Taliban holding power for a number of years. And then, of course, you get to a point where a few years later, the United States entered, and really did achieve its major objective right from the start, which was essentially to remove the al-Qaeda sanctuaries. Al-Qaeda had been very happily hosted by the Taliban. But I think it’s as the years went by, it was just easier for a number of different terror groups to exploit the very troubled security environment in this country.”

On why the Afghan military still requires U.S. assistance

“Well, that’s a question that’s very hard to answer. Of course, we’re starting from a very low base here. You know, the notion of central security and national security institutions is somewhat new. The fact that you have a national army, national police force, you know, these really weren’t around for the most part in previous years. So, it takes a very long time to get to a point where these institutions become truly self-sufficient. But I think the fact of the matter is the enemy and the challenges that the Afghan security forces face are so formidable that it’s really difficult and really unfair to expect these fledgling troops and police forces in Afghanistan to be able to essentially ease, if not end, the insurgency altogether any time soon. And there are also external factors at play here, as well. I mean, the fact of the matter is you have sanctuaries in Pakistan for the chief combatants of the insurgency in Afghanistan. The bottom line at the end of the day is that you do have these external factors as well that complicate the effort to stabilize the country.”

How long will the U.S. and NATO be involved in Afghanistan

“You know, when people in Washington in the analytical community and those that are really paying attention to this war, when they start talking about time frames — I’m not talking about official Washington, I’m talking about those outside of the government. When we talk about how long it could take, the parallel that tends to come up is the Colombia insurgency. And the fact that that took decades. It took a half century to resolve. So, unfortunately, if that analogy ends up being true, then you may have to think about a 50-year period, and I just don’t see that at all politically palatable in this country. Quite frankly, my own view is that it would be wise to send in several thousand more troops, not to fight a war, but to supplement the advising and the training.

“But I think that there needs to be some very clear-cut objectives put out there by the Trump administration to suggest what needs to be done. I’m not saying there need to be time frames put out there, but there need to be clear cut objectives put there by the U.S. government as to what the troops in Afghanistan should be doing. And that way, it will be easier to measure after a certain period of time if things aren’t being done the way they’re supposed to be done per the objectives that are set, it may be easier to think about the next steps. But, you know, at the end of the day, what General Nicholson said about trying to protect the U.S. homeland from what could be done in Afghanistan — it may be a bit of an exaggeration there, but it is very true that if the U.S. simply turns its back on Afghanistan, you could have conditions set into place where the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates significantly enough that you could have more and more sanctuaries carved out in Afghanistan in which the Taliban could once again invite al-Qaeda forces in there to start trying plan an attack in the United States once again. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but we should not rule out that possibility. And that, in and of itself, in my view, justifies the need for a continued though not necessarily permanent U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.”

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