Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
While there were numerous informative exchanges in last night’s GOP presidential debate, one of the more important was on the subject of Afghanistan.
Many Americans would prefer to forget about this war. Americans are tired of it after a decade of war. They have become hopeful that the killing of so many al Qaeda operatives around the world makes the stakes in Afghanistan now lower than before. But our troops and diplomats and aid workers are the ones who really have the right to be tired - and yet they keep on persevering. The least the rest of us can do is take the issue seriously at a time when more than 90,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines remain deployed in harm’s way.
Governor Huntsman appears to reflect the same kind of thinking that Obama Administration officials, on their recent trips to East Asia, articulated and underscored - the future of the 21st century will be determined not in the mountains of Central Asia but in the broader Pacific region. China and India will be more central than Afghanistan; tectonic shifts in international power distributions will be more crucial than a given counterinsurgency campaign in a small remote country.
Sounds reasonable. And let’s hope he’s right. But Afghanistan remains the place where the idea of the 9/11 attacks was hatched. It remains a large land area where, if the Taliban came back to power, not only al Qaeda but the Pakistani Taliban (which seeks to overthrow its country’s government and claim its nuclear weapons) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks and would love to do something even worse again, perhaps plunging India and Pakistan into war) might find their best sanctuaries. It is a place where, after so many years of sacrifice, NATO troops working with Afghans have secured perhaps three-fourths of the country reasonably well, and gotten the Afghan army and police perhaps halfway towards where they need to be to keep most of the country safe with only limited help.
Whether we like it or not, Afghanistan is important, and the job is not yet done. Obama administration officials, despite their preference to swing to East Asia, need to remember this; Governor Huntsman needs to do so as well.
There are two main reasons why Huntsman’s plan for a rapid drawdown is mistaken. First, the eastern part of the country still needs to be better secured after progress in most of the rest of the country over the last two years. The ring road connecting Kabul and Kandahar is to be better secured over the coming year, for example, and the border regions with Pakistan more hardened against infiltration. This requires U.S. troops as part of the effort, since the job is quite challenging.
Second, the Afghan army and police need to complete the process of being built. Just as crucially, they need more apprenticeship in the field. Today, NATO forces and Afghan units partner intensively, with a NATO company or battalion often working hand in hand with an Afghan “kandak” (roughly a battalion-sized unit). The Afghans are fighting pretty well individually for the most part, but as an institution they have a ways to go. They can help some in the east now, and continue to do most of the work in Kabul and the north and west, and are doing an increasing fraction of the total stabilization mission in the south as well. But we need to be careful in making the transitions.
In other words, the strategy is working - at least tolerably well, if not super well. But it needs two to three years of intensive NATO effort before our role can be minimized.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.