President Obama’s original vision for Afghanistan by the end of 2016 was clear: only 1,000 American troops in country, mostly based in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, down from the tens of thousands that were part of the 140,000-strong coalition force at the height of the war against the Taliban. It would be the fulfillment of the promise Obama made during his campaign for the White House in 2008 to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, on Oct. 16, the president aborted the withdrawal. The 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he announced, will stay until the end of his term, a lame-duck solution that leaves the central Asian nation as an open wound for his successor.
The decision follows six months of Taliban resurgence, culminating in two weeks of dispiriting and violent developments in northern Afghanistan. First, on Sept. 28, thousands of Afghan national security forces—whose careful and expensive training and equipping has cost the U.S. more than $60 billion over 14 years—simply gave in to a prolonged Taliban siege of the city of Kunduz and ran for their lives. “When the Taliban hadn’t entered the city, it was easier to fight them,” says Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, head of the Kunduz provincial council. “Going after them now means turning every home into a trench and fighting street by street.”
Then, on Oct. 3, U.S. airstrikes meant to support Afghan government forces repeatedly bombed a busy hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, resulting in the deaths of 12 members of the medical staff and 10 patients. Obama apologized for the assault on the nongovernmental organization, but nothing he said could change the fact that Afghanistan is once again a costly predicament for the U.S.
By Oct. 15, Kunduz city had been retaken from the Taliban. But the psychological damage to the Kabul government has been tremendous. For the government’s army and national police forces, 2015 had been held out as the year to prove themselves. And, for the first nine months of the year, the Afghan forces put up a good fight, despite worrisome desertion rates and a 50 percent increase in casualties. Occasionally, U.S. drones and warplanes came to their assistance, but the Afghan forces seemed to be able to hold their own even as the U.S. and NATO reduced close air support, long considered essential to give the government and its coalition allies an upper hand against a cunning and adaptive insurgency. Both President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. General John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had a consistent narrative frame for the fighting on the ground: The Taliban might be able to extend its brutal activity across rural sections of the country’s 13 provinces, testing and stretching the Afghan forces, but the insurgents wouldn’t be able to overrun major urban centers. Then Kunduz fell.
By sacking Kunduz, a small number of Taliban achieved their biggest victory since the Islamist radicals, who once ruled most of the country and had provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, were defeated in the U.S.-led invasion at the end of 2001. They also blew a massive hole in the Ghani-Campbell narrative and raised doubts about the ability of the Kabul government to survive.
The fall of Kunduz exposed the way the political divisions in Kabul had trickled down to the forces in the battlefield. The U.S. had brokered a coalition government after last year’s bitter election stalemate. The continuing infighting among politicians, however, has had its effect on military commanders beholden to patrons in the capital.
The Taliban had first made a run at Kunduz in April but were fended off by a stopgap measure: local militias armed by the government to help in the city’s defense. The measure, however, perpetuated local tensions and rivalries because of the militias’ abusive behavior, which made circumstances fertile for the insurgents and their propaganda. The Taliban, furthermore, hadn’t been fully repulsed and continued to patrol and attack Kunduz suburbs. They’d proved resilient over the years of fighting against the 40-nation coalition and were about to show they could innovate.
By the end of September, they’d shifted tactics, no longer staging hit-and-runs but coming in big numbers with the intention of overrunning and occupying areas they took over. Their numbers had also been reinforced by elements affiliated with al-Qaeda that came across the border from Pakistan to evade military operations against them. That’s how they gathered a large enough force to take Kunduz.
The crisis has exposed the fragility of the Kabul regime in other ways. The Afghan government seemed blithely headed toward a post-U.S. future, ready to lease former coalition bases to businesses and investors. The panic over the fall of a city has led to more division and outrage. Punches were thrown during heated sessions of parliament broadcast live on national television. Political talk shows turned into brawls. Ghani’s officials were accused of deliberately conceding Kunduz. Although the city has been recovered from the insurgents, the government’s slow response continues to perpetuate those suspicions.
The U.S., which had been intent on withdrawal, watched from the sidelines as the Taliban marched on the city. After all, repelling the siege represented an important test for Afghan forces. Even in the immediate wake of Kunduz’s fall, the U.S. provided only one bombing run, in the suburbs of the city. When the U.S. finally stepped up its air support, the results were disastrous: the assault on the Doctors Without Borders hospital. The NGO has called for an independent war crimes investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, which was set up in 1991 under the Geneva Conventions but has never been used.
The postponed fulfillment of Obama’s withdrawal from Afghanistan must also be seen through the prism of the promise he has kept: ending the U.S. military role in Iraq. That country has been in a state of cataclysm since the end of 2011 and is now part of the multifront Syrian implosion as Islamic State carves out territory for itself. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has been infected by the virus of Islamic State. Also known as Daesh, Islamic State operates largely in eastern Nangarhar province and parts of the south, harassing both the Afghan government and Taliban. “Daesh has grown much faster than we anticipated,” Campbell testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services just before Obama’s decision to stop the withdrawal. “Its continued development in Afghanistan presents a legitimate threat to the entire region.”
In the streets and political salons of Kabul, there’s a sense of relief over Obama’s decision to suspend the U.S. pullout. However, 9,800 soldiers in a limited role with limited mobility won’t make much of a difference if a coalition of 140,000 couldn’t. If Afghanistan is to remain free of Taliban control, the estimated 350,000 troops of the Afghan armed forces will have to take ownership of this war.
For that to happen, the politicians in Kabul urgently need to get their house in order. The factionalism and bickering over even the smallest appointments shouldn’t continue “if the house is burning,” as Ghani himself has described the situation. The U.S.-led NATO coalition also has to find new ways to pressure Pakistan to crack down on the leadership of the insurgency, which continues to direct operations from that side of the border. Otherwise, Obama’s decision will be just a slight delay on a long-foretold failure, despite years of tremendous bloodshed and spent treasure.
Mashal, a reporter with the New York Times in Afghanistan, is a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek.