In the hours preceding Christmas Eve, Afghan forces were able to fend off Taliban sieges in the Sangin District, killing a “Taliban commander and 50 fighters.” Nonetheless, the district, located in Afghanistan's strategic Helmand Province, could not have been rid of Taliban presence without US and British airstrikes and air support backing Afghan reinforcements.
Since this incident in the Sangin District, and since the recent deaths of six Americans in an attack just outside of Bagram Air Base, President Obama’s vow to significantly reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan has again become a prominent component of US foreign policy--with 9,800 slated to stay in the region into most of 2016, and 5,500 to be deployed beyond the president’s departure from office.
U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations Michele Sison spoke at the Security Council on December 21st, reiterating the fact that while US forces will still be present, the primary focus is to establish Afghan forces to fight the Taliban.
“Our message to these forces is clear – there is only one path to peace, security, and stability in Afghanistan. And that path is not through military action – but through an Afghan-led reconciliation that builds upon the democratic and human rights gains the country has made since 2001. The Taliban’s attacks harm the Afghan people, destabilize the country, and betray the group’s disregard for the lives of the Afghan people. They must stop.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter also echoed sentiments of US-Afghan partnership in a December 18 press conference in Jalalabad, despite this being the longest war in American history:
“[...] as groups like ISIL emerge on the battlefield, or al-Qaeda seeks to reestablish a safe haven, we must be prepared to deter their growth and counter the threats they pose. We will be prepared to do that. They can never have a secure base here in Nangarhar or anywhere else in Afghanistan.”
Even with 14 years of United States support and backing for Afghan forces, there are still gaps in areas like intelligence, special forces, logistics, aviation, and “ministerial development.”
Part of the difficulty in regions like Afghanistan is that the battlefields are “dynamic,” in the sense that there are many emerging and reemerging groups in different areas of the country. From a US foreign policy perspective, a dynamic field just makes it more troublesome to pursue a troop withdrawal. Rather than focusing on properly training and equipping Afghan forces to be self-sustaining, we see constant shifts in aid and forces that follow the movements of enemies within the country.
“From al-Qaeda and various different parts of the Taliban movement to groups like the IMU that have been around for a long time, [...] these groups are constantly reconstituting themselves, reorganizing themselves, and accordingly, they show different behaviors and different -- attention at different times, different parts of the Afghan geography,” said Carter. “Therefore, Minister Stanekzai and I were talking about this today, the Afghan security forces with our help are getting more and more agile.”
Despite the fact that the president promised to end the Afghan war in 2014, it is clear that due to recent events, new developments in terror, and the progress of the Afghan forces, a complete US troop withdrawal in the near future is nothing but wishful thinking.