SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
By Paul D. Shinkman
Death tolls, government dysfunction and the Islamic State group threaten to sink hopes for Afghanistan – but it’s not over yet.
More than 4,600 Afghan soldiers have been killed in action so far this year, shattering the previous record set last year, when 4,350 soldiers died.
Afghanistan’s military cannot sustain such a high casualty rate, says U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the second-highest NATO commander in the country, who spoke by teleconference to Pentagon reporters last week. He discussed some of the Afghan government’s efforts to recruit more troops and improve medevac capabilities so more wounded-in-action soldiers survive long enough to get to a hospital.
“But they do need to decrease their casualty rate,” Anderson added. “All those things have to continue to improve to reduce those numbers, because those numbers are not sustainable in the long term.”
The startling casualty figures highlight a pivotal time for the central Asian nation after 13 years of war. The U.S. will end its combat mission and cut current troop levels by three and a half times by the end of this year, down to 9,800. The remaining forces will halve again by the end of 2015, and withdrawn with them will be the critical logistics, intelligence and medical capabilities they have tried – nobly but incompletely – to pass on to their Afghan counterparts. By 2016, if President Barack Obama maintains his current plan, all U.S. troops will come home.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi security forces continue to disintegrate in the face of the menacing specter of the Islamic State group, an insurgency that reportedly already has eyes on establishing a presence in Afghanistan in the coming months.
Latest reports from the ground indicate the fledgling Afghan government and its military are still reeling from the politicking of former President Hamid Karzai, who refused to sign a security agreement with the U.S. defining the American military presence for the next few years. That process was drawn out even further by a presidential election that led to a runoff, leaving the future of U.S.-Afghan relations in flux until just weeks ago.
As a result, the local economy, foreign investment and hope among the Afghan citizenry all came to a grinding halt. The leadership tandem of new President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah now must kick-start the future prospects of the troubled country.
Afghan leaders also must now contend with “Daish,” an Arabic acronym and alternate name for the Islamic State group. It reportedly is already brokering deals with Taliban commanders to establish a presence in Afghanistan after NATO combat forces leave in 2014 – a situation eerily similar to the disenfranchised Sunni population in Iraq who bought into the Islamic State group’s promises for change.
“That’s becoming an increasing part of the narrative. The undertones there are, ‘If you leave: Daish,’” says Jason Campbell, an analyst at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Virginia, who recently returned from a series of meetings in Afghanistan with members of the country’s new leadership. Campbell is able to share the Afghan leaders’ perspectives on the condition their identities remain anonymous.
“We’ve seen signs of Daish in Pakistan and maybe even here in Afghanistan. So [Afghan leaders] weren’t trying to foist all their security woes on a Daish insurrection,” he says. “But sitting in Afghanistan when an official says that during the course of a conversation a couple times, it does peak your curiosity.”
The Afghan government already has approached the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others, for advice and military support related to future insurgency problems. Some countries, including the U.S., are reportedly pushing for peace negotiations with Taliban leaders amid separate efforts to fight and defeat them.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also are participating in the U.S.-led mission to fight the Islamic State group from the air over Iraq and Syria, with varying degrees of involvement. Organizing that coalition was reportedly difficult enough. Afghan leaders are having an even more difficult time getting world attention before time runs out.
“With the drawn-out election dispute, what you’re having is this very, very condensed period here where you’re trying to engage for what’s going to be a very different atmosphere coming up at the end of the year,” says Campbell, referring to the formal end of combat by December. “And, also trying to put up a government that is going to instill some confidence [among] the international community as they reassess what their longer-term commitments are.”
The attitude among Afghan leaders following September’s presidential inauguration, Campbell says, is that “we have 100 days to show some substantive progress, and we’ve already used 20 of them.”
At the forefront of Afghanistan’s problems is whether Obama will fulfill his campaign promise of ending the war in Afghanistan by 2016, much as he did with Iraq in 2011. Insiders since have stipulated the White House could have done more to pressure then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow some U.S. support to remain behind, bolstering local forces with specialty skills in intelligence and logistics.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, however, says nothing more could have been done in Iraq leading up to 2011. He served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011 and oversaw the tumultuous drawdown in Iraq.
The U.S. could have done nothing more to change the minds of Iraqi leadership at the time, he tells U.S. News. That past, he adds, should serve as a dire warning for the current Afghan leadership.