Jared Wright is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that 8,400 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of his administration, nearly 3,000 more troops than his previous timeline, reflects the tenuous stability that Afghanistan has achieved after nearly fifteen years of U.S. involvement. A resurgent Taliban and the appearance of self-proclaimed Islamic State forces have tested the ability of the increasingly fragile central government to provide security and political stability and demonstrated the limits of U.S. training and support. Meanwhile, economic and political frustrations across all levels of Afghan society have gone largely unaddressed by the National Unity Government (NUG). The security situation in Afghanistan could worsen, which would threaten U.S. interests in the region.
A new Contingency Planning Memorandum released by the Center for Preventive Action, “Strategic Reversal in Afghanistan,” assesses the growing risks of strategic reversals in Afghanistan. Author Seth G. Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, recommends steps the United States can take to mitigate or prevent such risks.
The report highlights the shortcomings of the NUG and the challenges that the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police—which both face rising attrition rates, low morale, and a climbing death toll—are forced to confront in providing for Afghanistan’s security. Jones identifies two principle contingencies to watch over the next twelve to eighteen months: the collapse of the NUG—which is plagued by widespread corruption, deteriorating economic conditions, and competition among Afghan elites—and major gains in urban areas by the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any other point since December 2001. Both outcomes are not mutually exclusive, as one contingency would ultimately magnify the potential for the other.
U.S. interests would be harmed if either contingency happens. U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are clear: to target al-Qaeda and other extremist elements in order to prevent future attacks against the United States, and to enable Afghan forces to provide security for the country. A government collapse or the seizure of one or more major cities by the Taliban would severely diminish the likelihood of achieving either objective, while simultaneously rolling back gains made over the last decade. These contingencies could also lead to an increase in extremist groups operating in Afghanistan; introduce regional instability involving India, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia; and possibly signal to other countries that the United States is not a reliable ally, further complicating regional power dynamics.
To prevent these contingencies from occurring, Jones recommends the United States leverage its relationship with Afghanistan, focusing on building greater political consensus, encouraging regional powers to support Kabul, pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban, and strengthening Afghan security forces so that they can manage internal security challenges with limited outside involvement. To achieve those aims, the U.S. should:
- Focus diplomatic efforts on resolving acute political challenges, prioritizing electoral reforms and building consensus between the Afghan government and political elites.
- Address economic grievances that could undermine the political legitimacy of the government.
- Sustain the current number and type of U.S. military forces through the end of the Obama administration.
- Decrease constraints on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and grant the military authority to strike the Taliban and Haqqani network.
- Sustain U.S. support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
For a more in-depth analysis on how the situation in Afghanistan might result in a strategic reversal and what the United States can do to prevent that from happening or mitigate the consequences, read “Strategic Reversal in Afghanistan.”