Over the past few months, the Obama administration has renewed its efforts to strengthen its position in Afghanistan. In spite of the worsening death toll from the ongoing war, the Obama administration has made a series of new wartime commitments to ensure that the United States maintains a powerful influence over the country well into the future.
In June 2016, President Obama made one of the most significant new commitments when he authorized U.S. military forces to more directly engage the Taliban in military operations. The new authorities allow “US forces to be more proactive in supporting conventional Afghan forces as they take the fight to the Taliban,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained. “And this means, in some cases, offering close air support, or it means, in some cases, accompanying Afghan forces on the ground or in the air.”
In July 2016, President Obama then made another significant commitment. Reversing his earlier pledge to reduce the US military presence to 5,500 troops by the end of 2016, Obama announced that “the United States will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year, through the end of my administration.” Obama decided to keep a larger troop presence in Afghanistan because, as he noted, “the Afghan people will need the partnership of the world – led by the United States – for many years to come.”
With his latest moves, President Obama has ensured that the United States will continue to play a dominant role in Afghanistan. Although he will have to hand over responsibility for the war to his successor in the months ahead, Obama has provided the next administration with the tools to maintain a powerful hold over Afghanistan for the immediate future.
“The Taliban and their allies cannot wait us out,” Secretary of State John Kerry insisted when he addressed the issue on October 5, 2016. No matter what happens in the upcoming US presidential election, he added, “I have absolutely no doubt the United States is going to continue, there will be a renewed commitment.”
Of course, some observers express doubts about the extent of that commitment. For example, former CIA official Robert L. Grenier noted before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in early September 2016 that US officials had settled on more modest objectives. “The US no longer aims to defeat the Taliban; instead it hopes merely to keep the Kabul regime from being defeated,” Grenier stated.
In late September 2016, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. provided another reason to be doubtful. Addressing the fact that the U.S.-backed Afghan military forces are struggling to defeat the Taliban, Dunford stated that the war had become “roughly a stalemate.”
Moreover, the Afghan military forces continually struggle to withstand the latest Taliban offensives. In recent weeks, The New York Times has described in a number of articles how Afghan military forces have briefly lost control of major population centers to Taliban forces.
Regardless, most US officials insist that both they and their Afghan allies will prevail in the war. If the war is a stalemate, then it is “a stalemate in which the government’s controlling 70 percent of the population,” the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan John W. Nicholson asserted on September 23, 2016. The Taliban and other enemy forces may retain control of some parts of the country, but the overall situation “is a positive in the sense of the majority of the population’s under control of the government forces.”
In fact, US officials remain determined to help the Afghan government bring more of the country’s population under the control of government forces.
“So, we clearly want to help the Afghans next year and beyond to gradually increase the amount of control they exercise over the population,” Nicholson explained.
Cozying up to Warlords
At the same time, US officials have taken additional steps to advance their objectives. Without relying solely on their military power, US officials have applied their economic and political power to the country in significant ways. In the first place, US officials have promised to provide the Afghan government with the funding it requires to keep functioning. “We will provide in excess of three billion dollars per year through 2020, and we expect the United States will remain the largest single funder of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson announced on June 21, 2016.
In addition, US officials are determined to keep working with the country’s warlords, who are some of the country’s most notorious killers. US officials view the warlords as important forces for constraining the Taliban and controlling the Afghan people.
In early 2003, US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher provided the basic logic when he instructed the new Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to integrate the warlords” into the new Afghan government. Comparing the country’s warlords to “many of the Wild West’s most famous sheriffs,” Rohrabacher suggested that the warlords would provide “law and order” in Afghanistan. US officials, who have refused to allow warlords such as Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum into the United States, have continued to maintain friendly relations with a number of the country’s warlords, viewing them as key power brokers.
Certainly, “we do treat the Vice President,” meaning Abdul Rashid Dostum, “as the First Vice President of Afghanistan with all the respect that his office carries,” Special Representative Olson acknowledged before members of Congress earlier this year. “And we are in touch with him at the appropriate level.”
In fact, US officials have recently grown more excited about the possibilities for integrating the warlords. When the Afghan government announced in late September 2016 its intentions to form a peace agreement with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, US officials largely welcomed the news. The proposed peace deal “is encouraging in my mind” and “a very positive step,” General Nicholson stated on September 23, 2016.
Days later, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar sentiments. According to the terms of the deal, “Hekmatyar’s group will be able to emerge from the shadows to rejoin Afghan society,” Kerry explained. Consequently, the deal “is a model for what might be possible” with the country’s militants.
Holding It All Together
As they have supported the Afghan government’s latest efforts to integrate the warlords, US officials have also remained directly involved in the country’s political process. Working closely with Afghan officials, they have worked to ensure that the Afghan government keeps functioning as the country’s main domestic power center. Not even the fraudulent elections of 2014 deterred them from their mission. Clearly, “we’ve held Afghanistan together with a unity government after a failed election where it could have collapsed,” John Kerry noted in late September 2016. Indeed, Kerry boasted that US officials have been able to hold together a corrupt Afghan government that does not have any legitimacy. “We’ve been able to nurture that,” he noted.
In short, US officials are determined to continue guiding the country’s fate. Although they remain well aware that many Afghans detest their government, they remain committed to increasing the power of the Afghan government over the country and preserving what has essentially become a client state. “I mean, look at a map of this region,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently commented. “Not a bad place to have good friends. So we’re – we’re in this for the long run.”
Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary. Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.