For a long period — from approximately 2002 to 2009 — the Afghanistan conflict was the forgotten war. Resources flowed to Iraq while American neglect allowed the Taliban to recover from the near-fatal defeat they had suffered in the fall of 2001. By the time that President Obama came into office, the Taliban posed such a potent threat that General Stanley McChrystal, then the NATO commander in Kabul, was warning that the U.S. faced imminent defeat unless it substantially reinforced the troops in Afghanistan.
How little things change. Once again, our attention is distracted from Afghanistan. In the GOP debate on Tuesday night, Afghanistan was not mentioned once. It was all ISIS, all the time. But the Taliban haven’t gone away. In fact, largely because of Obama’s ill-advised troop cuts (he reduced the number of U.S. troops from 100,000 to 10,000), the Taliban are once again resurgent. A new Pentagon report, which is invariably written with an optimistic perspective, concedes that security worsened in the second half of 2015.
Over at Long War Journal, Bill Roggio spells out how bad it’s gotten: “The Taliban now controls 37 districts in Afghanistan and contests another 39 … These numbers may be low given the methodology used to assess control and contested districts. The group has made a push to gain territory over the past two months, seizing 15 districts in the north, west, and south.”
And the Taliban offensive is only getting started. They are particularly potent in Helmand Province, where their fighters are just five miles outside the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, warns that if Lashkar Gah were to fall, that “has the potential to deal a crippling blow to the morale of the Afghan security forces and bring fears of a Taliban takeover of the south.”
Nor is the threat confined to the Taliban. ISIS is also on the march in Afghanistan. Originally made up of Taliban defectors, the ISIS foothold in Afghanistan is now attracting international support. General John Campbell, the top U.S. military commander in Kabul, says that with help from Syrians and Iraqis, ISIS is trying to establish a regional hub in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, once one of the most secure cities in the east or south. ISIS sees Jalalabad as a new Raqqa, the capital of a province called Khorasan.
As the New York Times reported a few days ago, the U.S. military command has responded to these dire developments by sending Special Operations Forces to fight with Afghan forces in Helmand. This is stretching their mandate to be in a “non-combat” capacity except for targeting al- Qaeda, but it is utterly necessary to prevent the possible collapse of all that the U.S. has sought to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.
The real question is whether the U.S. military is doing as much as it should. It is largely limited from providing air support — whether firepower or medevac — to Afghan forces on the front lines, and with the exception of a small number of special operators it is also forbidden from being on the front lines itself. Most of the 10,000 or so U.S. personnel are “advisers” and support personnel on large bases, mainly in Kabul, far removed from where the combat is going on.
President Obama is to be commended for backing down from his pledge to downsize the U.S. force to 5,000 by the end of the year, and withdraw it entirely by the time he leaves office. But even 10,000 troops are evidently not enough to slow the advance of the Taliban. The Defense Department and the White House urgently need to reexamine the force levels and rules of engagement for Afghanistan. At a remove of thousands of miles, it is hard for me to say exactly how many troops we need, but I think it’s fair to say we need to at least double the U.S. force right now or else risk possibly catastrophic gains for the Taliban that could leave Afghanistan in as bad a shape as Iraq by the time that Obama leaves office.