Obama Gives Afghanistan a Fighting Chance

More training needed.

Photographer: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Two years after President Barack Obama declared he would bring the war in Afghanistan to a “responsible end,” he has canceled the planned withdrawal of 4,300 troops and said the U.S. will keep a force of 8,500 in the country indefinitely.

Perhaps he realized what a huge mistake it was to leave no soldiers behind when he “ended” the war in Iraq in 2011, an error that has been critical to the rise of Islamic State. Afghanistan is likewise at risk of collapsing into anarchy, and again becoming a safe harbor for terrorist groups plotting attacks against the West. The U.S. needs to keep its force in place.

Given the enemies that the Afghan government faces -- the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and now an Islamic State faction -- one may wonder how a few thousand U.S. troops can make any difference. But they can: A relative handful of highly qualified Americans can go a long way toward organizing counterinsurgency campaigns and training Afghan security forces. And the elite special forces units deployed in Afghanistan are suited to taking out terrorist leaders.

Obama and his generals have recently strengthened the anti-insurgency campaign by intensively bombing Islamic State’s allies in the east of the country, and by relaxing the rules of engagement so that U.S. forces can bomb Taliban warriors to protect Afghan forces whether or not Americans themselves are in danger.

Nevertheless, even after years of training and billions in U.S. spending, Afghan forces are not yet ready to stand alone. Last year, Afghan troops fled before a Taliban assault that briefly took the city of Kunduz.

One main problem is that Afghanistan has enlarged its army and police force so much, there are too many soldiers and officers to sufficiently train and supply. The government needs to be convinced that war isn’t a jobs program and that, when it comes to defense, less can be more.

Another problem is widespread corruption. The Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan has identified billions of dollars wasted and siphoned off by officials over the years. Surveys have shown that Afghans widely distrust the police -- whose job is to maintain control in places freed from Taliban control -- and a fifth don’t trust the military.

The Pentagon shares some responsibility for the slow progress: It’s been reluctant to let U.S. trainers accompany Afghan forces into battle -- another mistake also made in Iraq -- and it’s been providing too little air support for Afghan ground operations. Last year, the number of sorties dropped to 5,700, from 35,000 in 2011. 

Perhaps the U.S. and other Western supporters would find it easier to help if the political situation in Afghanistan were more stable. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have yet to resolve their own feud, ease tensions among ethnic groups and crack down on corruption enough to ensure that parliamentary elections can be held in October.

But Obama’s surprise troop announcement sends a strong message to the Afghan people and their leaders that the U.S. is not abandoning them. To have any hope of fending off their many foes, the Afghans need to know the world remains on their side.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.