Two years ago, while commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford convinced President Barack Obama to slow the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from that still-beleaguered nation. Now, Obama has named Dunford to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If, as expected, Congress confirms the nomination, the general will have to continue making the case for preserving a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
The surprise success in Iraq of the self-proclaimed Islamic State over the last year offers an excellent albeit bloody example of why U.S. forces must remain in Afghanistan. The United States cannot afford a similar eruption of chaos in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
At his confirmation hearing last Thursday, Dunford told U.S. senators that his advice to President Obama on troop levels in Afghanistan would be based on ground conditions, rather than a pre-set timetable. This is welcome news, especially in light of the ongoing Taliban military offensive and the evidence of ISIS inroads into South Asia.
Despite these dangers, the Obama administration seems wedded to its timetable for withdrawing all U.S. forces -- except those necessary to protect the U.S. Embassy -- by the end of 2016. On June 26, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated this position, saying the United States should not be "the guarantor of Afghan security in perpetuity."
Blinken's statement is misleading and ignores U.S. national security interests. The United States deployed troops to Afghanistan to prevent another 9/11 by rooting out international terrorist bases. Preventing the Taliban (which is still allied with al Qaeda) from retaking territory in the country not only protects the Afghan people from a brutal and repressive regime, it also denies terrorists intent on attacking the United States their long-time base of operations.
About 13,200 U.S. and NATO personnel are currently stationed in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support mission to train and advise Afghan forces. NATO formally ended combat operations last December, but Afghan security forces still require U.S. air support, equipment, training, battlefield advice, and intelligence to maintain an edge over the insurgency.
Without this assistance, things could get very grim very fast. This year, the Taliban kicked off its annual spring offensive by overrunning several outposts in Kunduz, in the north. They nearly captured the provincial capital. More than 100,000 Afghans fled their homes.
The Taliban also have conducted several high-profile attacks on Afghan and international civilian targets. An attack on a hotel in central Kabul in mid-March killed 14 people, including an American and eight other foreigners. On June 22, they attacked the Afghan parliament.
ISIS Encroachment Adds to Concern
Further complicating efforts to stabilize the country is the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan. ISIS claimed responsibility for an April 18 suicide bombing that killed 35 people outside a Jalalabad bank. The group has used its territorial successes in Iraq and Syria -- and disaffection over the absence of communication from Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar -- to recruit from Taliban ranks. There have been reports of clashes between ISIS militants and the Taliban, mainly in the northeast, where ISIS has reportedly established bases in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces.
ISIS is unlikely to make significant headway, however, so long as the Taliban view the group as a competitor for recruits, resources, and ideological influence. This competition was evident in a letter sent by the Taliban to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in mid-June, urging the group not to take actions that could lead to "division of the Mujahideen's command."
While it is highly unlikely that ISIS would supplant the Taliban as the major fighting force in the country, it is possible that the two groups will one day merge. This would be the worst-case scenario from a U.S. perspective.
Don't Bank on Peace Talks
In a welcome first step by Pakistan to facilitate an Afghan reconciliation process, Islamabad hosted peace talks between Taliban leaders and the Afghan government last week. Pakistani security officials do not fully control the Taliban, but they play an influential role with their leaders and have proved in the past that they can disrupt talks if they so choose.
Talks will have to be accompanied by a reduction in Taliban attacks before the Afghan people will get behind a reconciliation process, however. Furthermore, the depth of support for talks among the various Taliban factions remains unknown, although Mullah Omar endorsed the talks this week, saying Islam permitted negotiations with the enemy.
While the dialogue merits skepticism, the continued presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan could bolster the chances of success. The more the Taliban calculates an all-out military victory is out of reach, the greater the pressure on them to accept a diplomatic solution.
Moving forward, the United States must maintain its current force levels in the country so long as conditions on the ground call for it. As we have seen with the rise of ISIS in Iraq, abruptly withdrawing U.S. forces from a war zone can lead to devastating consequences.