Afghanistan Five Years On: No Time to Celebrate

The fifth anniversary of our invasion is unfortunately no time to celebrate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ultimately win.

Five years ago the United States, backed by allied forces from around the world, invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government and root out Al Qaeda. Our military forces performed brilliantly, yet Afghanistan’s future today is far from certain. 

Some progress over the past five years is clearly evident—a new constitution, new democratic institutions, and newly created Afghan security forces. The security situation has deteriorated dramatically in recent months, however, and the economy is in shambles. Opium production is at an all time high, reconstruction has faltered, and attacks have increased against U.S. troops and NATO-led International Security Forces. 

What’s worse, Osama bin Laden, who directed the September 11th attacks from Afghanistan, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who harbored him, remain at large. The Taliban grows stronger every day with increased cash flows from the opium trade, Arab donors in the Persian Gulf, and a safe harbor in Pakistan. Insurgents have imported tactics from the Iraq war, such as roadside bombs and suicide bombings, into the Afghan theater.  

Furthermore, Afghanistan security forces remain weak. The Afghan National Army remains under-equipped and ill-prepared to meet current threats while the Afghan Police is wracked with corruption and incompetence. So far this year, 2,800 people have been killed, including 165 coalition forces, compared to 1,500 for all of 2005.

This past Thursday, NATO expanded its mission all over Afghanistan, taking over security for the eastern part of Afghanistan and assuming control over 12,000 U.S. troops. About 8,000 U.S. troops outside of NATO remain in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorist operations, reconstruction projects, and the training of Afghan security forces. 

This is an important step towards correcting the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  But the United States must remain committed to Afghanistan even as NATO increases its control over Afghanistan’s security. In fact, because many member countries of NATO have largely seen their mission as peacekeeping and reconstruction rather than counter-terrorism efforts, the United States must fill that void when necessary. 

After the Afghan Mujahadeen defeated the Soviet forces occupying their country in the 1980’s, the U.S. assistance to this force and engagement with the Afghan political process withered. This failed policy left a vacuum quickly filled by the rise of the Taliban and the establishment of the headquarters and training camps for al Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

Getting Afghanistan right is critical to preventing it from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Alas, after the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration ignored Afghanistan to pursue an unnecessary war in Iraq. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, had everything to do with 9/11. Yet, the Bush administration has continuously diverted crucial resources and forces from Afghanistan to Iraq, allowing the Taliban and terrorist groups to recover from the invasion five years ago, regroup, and now go on the attack

America must respond. Troop levels in Afghanistan should be doubled to 40,000 from the approximately 20,000 U.S. troops deployed there today. These troops should be sent from Iraq to Afghanistan under NATO leadership as reinforcements to complete the work left unfinished by the Bush administration. The United States must also provide more equipment and training for Afghan security forces. 

As in Iraq, however, many of the problems in Afghanistan will not be solved by military means alone. Greater investment in Afghanistan’s economy and reconstruction is essential to creating a stable state. The United States and the international community need to commit to a well-funded and well-managed long term economic development effort, and the government of Afghanistan should take the lead. 

The United States must also increase its diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and the region, and demand that its neighbors not meddle unproductively in its demise. As a first priority, the U.S. government must increase pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the pro-Taliban tribal militants who harbor global terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province.

In early September, the Pakistani government signed a pact with these tribal groups that will allow the area to remain a safe haven for Islamist militants who have planned attacks in Afghanistan and who continue to plot against U.S. interests. The Bush administration has done nothing about this. It should not give unconditional support to Pakistan.   

We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan again. 

For more on the Center for American Progress’ stance on Afghanistan, please see:

Experts available for comment on these issues at the Center for American Progress include:

  • Joe Cirincione, Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress
  • Caroline Wadhams, National Security Senior Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress
  • Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow