Mar 16, 2016

Leader McCarthy in War on the Rocks: Time to Stop Maximizing the Chances of Failure in Afghanistan

War on the Rocks  |  March 16, 2016

Along with other House national security leaders, I have just sent a letter to President Obama expressing our concern for the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. There is no question that a secure, stable, and sovereign Afghanistan remains in the national security interests of the United States, but President Obama’s foreign policy decisions are undermining that goal. Unfortunately, our military commanders are forced to continue this mission without everything they need to take the fight to the insurgency, and a recklessly fast troop drawdown is placing unnecessary risk on the mission and ultimately threatening the success of Resolute Support.

Consider this: The Taliban control more of Afghanistan today than at any point since 2001. In January, the Long War Journal reported that the Taliban control 40 districts in Afghanistan and contest another 39. In Helmand, where U.S. Marines and our NATO partners fought bravely to wrest control of the province from the Taliban, the Taliban control at least five districts and heavily contest at least another six. That is nearly every district in the province. In the east of Afghanistan , the Islamic State has established a presence of up to 3,000 fighters since the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in late 2014 — a remarkable expansion. And in the country’s north, the Taliban overran and seized the city of Kunduz in September of last year — marking the first time insurgents have seized a major urban area since the 2001 U.S.-led operation.

Over the past year, we have seen many of our hard-fought gains of the past decade across Afghanistan simply disappear.

Fortunately, after much delay, President Obama authorized targeting authority for Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan in January 2016 — allowing our military personnel to strike the enemy decisively and offensively. Since then, scores of Islamic State fighters have been killed. This should have once again proven that nobody can target and destroy the enemy better than the U.S. military when given the authorities to do so. It’s a safe assumption that the Islamic State would never have established a foothold in Afghanistan if commanders weren’t forced by the White House to sit on their hands.

Many Americans were likely surprised to hear the former Resolute Support commander Gen. John Campbell’s testimony in front of the House of Representatives in February of this year where he admitted severe limitations on his ability to take the fight to the enemy. Gen. Campbell said, “I have the authority to protect coalition members against any insurgents … to attack the Taliban just because they’re Taliban, I do not have that authority.” This forces our military to fight with severe limitations and makes it significantly more difficult for Afghan forces to succeed on the battlefield.

But the Taliban isn’t the only enemy that poses a threat to Afghanistan’s stability. To this day, the Haqqani Network remains a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization — a designation that Congress pressed hard for in 2012 — because it continues to harbor al-Qaeda. So refusing to fight the Taliban and Haqqani Network with the same intensity that we fight the Islamic State defies logic. Given that the Taliban have made tremendous territorial gains since the end of 2014 and the Haqqani Network continues to pose the most significant threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, commanders must have the authority to unilaterally strike the Taliban and Haqqani Network.

However, the string of highly questionable policy decisions doesn’t end there. The Obama administration remains committed to drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 9,800 to 5,500 by 2017. The 9,800 U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan are the absolute minimum number required to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), conduct counterterrorism operations that are ever more necessary in today’s security environment, and protect U.S. personnel and facilities. Fearing further setbacks in Afghanistan, President Obama’s outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command recently testified that it might be necessary to revisit this drawdown plan. But he’s not the only 4-star to say that.

After recently relinquishing command in Afghanistan, Gen. Campbell decried the painfully slow decision-making process at the White House and the need to discuss over and over again what should have already been decided. This does not bode well for the mission, as senior administration officials must make decisive choices in the future to empower commanders on the ground. Gen. John Nicholson, who replaced Campbell earlier this month, will have to consider some major changes as he undertakes his top-to-bottom review of the situation in Afghanistan. I hope the White House will treat his recommendations with the seriousness and urgency they deserve.

Taken together, the Obama administration needs a strategic rethink to its approach to Afghanistan. As our letter makes clear, I believe we must empower our men and women in Afghanistan so that the Resolute Support mission will have the best chance of success and particularly so that Afghan security forces can continue the tough fight against a determined enemy. Doing so requires the necessary leadership to reconsider the arbitrary scheduled drawdown of U.S. forces by keeping the level at 9,800 troops so that the next commander-in-chief has as much flexibility as possible to decide how to proceed.

Without these changes, we are maximizing the chances of failure in Afghanistan.