Specialist in International Security
August 29, 2013
This is a critical time for U.S. efforts in the war in Afghanistan. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would draw down by an additional 34,000 troops, to about 33,000, by February 2014, and that by the end of 2014 “our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Further decision-making regarding the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, including after the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission at the end of 2014, is expected later this year. Yet while troop levels tend to steal the headlines, far more fundamentally at stake is what it would take to ensure the long-term protection of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the region.
Arguably, the United States may have a number of different interests at stake in the region: countering al Qaeda and other violent extremists; preventing nuclear proliferation; preventing nuclear confrontation between nuclear-armed states; standing up for American values, including basic human rights and the protection of women; and preserving the United States’ ability to exercise leadership on the world stage. At issue is the relative priority of these interests, what it would take in practice to ensure that they are protected, and their relative importance compared to other compelling security concerns around the globe.
U.S. efforts in Afghanistan include an array of activities: prosecuting the fight on the ground, in support of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), to counter the insurgency; supporting Afghanistan’s political process, including the presidential elections scheduled to be held in April 2014; providing assistance to help Afghans craft and grow a viable economy; and facilitating Afghan-led efforts to achieve a high-level political settlement with the Taliban. At issue is whether these are the activities best suited to achieve a lasting outcome that protects U.S. interests, as well as how some or all of these activities might most constructively inform each other.
As of mid-2013, most Afghan and ISAF commanders suggested that the campaign on the ground was gaining traction, reflected in the successful security transition to Afghan lead responsibility for security and in improvements in the ANSF; in the diminished strength of the insurgency; and in the successful adaptation by coalition forces to new roles and missions. Afghan and ISAF commanders also shared roughly the same vision of further steps, in which the roles played by the coalition would diminish in scale and grow more tailored in scope, with a particular focus on advising and enabling the ANSF.
Yet most observers agree that the long-term sustainability of campaign gains—and the protection of U.S. interests—would require major changes in the broader strategic landscape. Critical requirements would include sufficiently responsive Afghan governance; a viable economy that offers Afghans sufficient opportunities; a regional context that supports rather than undermines Afghan stability; and a conclusion to the war broadly acceptable to the Afghan people.
This report describes the current strategic context, the state of the campaign, next steps in the campaign, and what it would take to make campaign gains sustainable; and it offers questions that may be of help to Congress in providing oversight of further U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.