President Barack Obama took office in 2009 with a goal to end the war in Afghanistan, launched in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. But Obama will leave office with thousands of U.S. troops on the ground — an unfinished mission that the new president, Donald Trump, will inherit.
On reasons to be concerned about Afghanistan’s future
“Probably the most salient point that I think you could look at — in terms of reasons to be concerned about Afghanistan’s future — stems from the fact that, over the course of the past year, the 2016 fighting season, the Taliban were able to attack and occasionally infiltrate into five different provincial capitals in the country, and in fact they attacked several of those numerous times. So there were eight overall attacks, and some incursions into various provincial capitals. Compare that to one attack and incursion that occurred last year in 2015, and zero that occurred in the several years before that. I mean that’s just one specific indicator you could look at that causes pause with respect to the security situation as it’s unfolding in Afghanistan.”
On how Afghanistan’s security has deteriorated
“It really stems from… there was a transition of power that took place at the end of 2014 from what was largely a U.S.- and NATO ally-led campaign against the Taliban, to an Afghan-led campaign. And so, as part of that, the U.S. and its NATO allies drew down quite a few of their forces — as I think most people know — but left a sizable contingent behind on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 troops. And the idea was that the Afghans, we thought, their security forces, were strong enough to step into the lead and hold the gains that we had helped them achieve over the past few years. And what we’ve seen over the past couple years is that those security forces have proven not nearly as strong or as resilient as we thought.
“And so, especially over the course of the last year, what you saw is some amount of backtracking, in terms of the planned further draw down of U.S. troops, and the re-introduction of these strategic effects authorities, which allows U.S. forces in Afghanistan to offensively target the Taliban, and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, with airstrikes and other means, which was a pretty big step, because prior to that, the authorities were such that the U.S. forces in Afghanistan could only respond in times of self defense, with things like airstrikes.”
On what the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy could be
“I think it’s a really open question. One of the reasons I wrote this article was to try and stimulate further discussion on that, because as somebody who’s worked on Afghanistan for the last nine years or so, I found it pretty disconcerting that it was not addressed at all in the presidential debates, or really at any meaningful way along the presidential campaigns. As best as I can tell, the Trump administration transition team hasn’t yet sort of made clear what their views on Afghanistan are, or what the president-elect’s views on Afghanistan are.
“I think a primary question on the table is, what is the length and depth of the commitment of the new administration to the war in Afghanistan? I think answering that question then leads down a whole set of different paths, depending on whether you’re more interested in a long-term approach, or a rough continuation of the sort of short, ‘let’s see if we can get out of year in the next couple years’ approach that we’ve been trying for the last five to six years.”
On what can be gleaned from Trump’s cabinet picks
“I have worked with Gen. [Michael Flynn] and Gen. [James Mattis] — the Trump administration’s pick for secretary of defense — in the past. I suspect that, based on their history of involvement with the war in Afghanistan, and their sort of deep and nuanced understanding of that war and the actors involved in the situation there, I have to believe that they have a pretty sobering view of the conflict on the ground, and sort of where we stand right now as well.”
On the implications of Afghanistan becoming a “forgotten war” in the U.S.
“There’s a point that the commander of forces in Afghanistan now, General Nicholson, makes when he gives briefings, which is, of the designated terrorist organizations that exist globally, 20 of them have a presence in either Afghanistan or Pakistan — I think it’s like 13 in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan. So it’s a sort of sobering reminder that this is a very dangerous part of the world, and so, turning our back on Afghanistan is just really not a feasible or logical option, especially when you look at the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — us sort of abandoning the Mujaheddin in the wake of their victory against the Soviets didn’t turn out very well for us, and I think any even slight student of history would take that lesson to heart when it comes to thinking about the future of Afghanistan as well.”