Maintaining a residual U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan beyond 2014 remains critical to preventing the Taliban and al Qaeda from regaining a foothold in the country, according to a Department of Defense report released Friday.
After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO’s efforts to beat back insurgents and train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to handle their own country’s security have begun to bear fruit. Enemy-initiated attacks decreased by 6 percent and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks by 22 percent compared to the last reporting period.
However, the decline in violence came at a cost. ANSF casualties increased by 79 percent compared to the same period last year, while U.S. and NATO casualties dropped by 59 percent. The ANSF also still relies on the coalition for intelligence, surveillance, airlift, resupply, and medical assistance.
"After 2014, ANSF sustainability will be at high risk without continued aid from the international community and continued coalition force assistance including institutional advising. With assistance, however, the ANSF will remain on a path towards an enduring ability to overmatch the Taliban," the report said.
U.S. and Afghan officials are still negotiating a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would leave in place a small advisory force of about 8,000 to 12,000 following the full withdrawal of combat troops at the end of 2014. The report said the text of the BSA is largely settled and now faces approval from the central government in Kabul and a loya jirga, or national tribal council, in the coming weeks.
The negotiations, which began in November 2012, have a contentious history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai broke them off in June after the Taliban hoisted an old flag at its office in Doha, Qatar, and declared itself the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the same name it used when it ruled Afghanistan before 2001. The display scuttled any chance of a peace deal between Karzai and the Taliban, but talks on the BSA have since resumed.
Experts have argued that retaining a post-2014 force is critical to the ANSF’s ongoing counterterror and counternarcotics missions. Although the report said operatives in Afghan terrorist groups number in the dozens, insurgents still maintain influence in rural areas to provide "an alternate safe haven to their sanctuaries in Pakistan."
Groups like the Haqqani Network continue to conduct "high profile attacks" in major Afghan population centers with IEDs transited through Pakistan, the report said.
"The re-establishment of Haqqani safe-havens in Afghanistan would be worse than the expansion of the safe-havens across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—it would be the liberation of one of the most lethal Islamist terrorist groups in the world to expand its aims, methods, and targets," said Frederick Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The report noted that the illicit opium trade remains a significant source of financing for the insurgents, with the poppy harvest expected to ramp up this year as weather conditions improve and U.S. and NATO forces pull back.
Additionally, many officials in Karzai’s inner circle have enriched themselves at the expense of Afghanistan’s persistent economic troubles. The attorneys general and anti-corruption offices are often the most likely to engage in corruption rather than combat it, the report said.
These three lingering issues—insurgencies, narcotics trafficking, and corruption—require vigilance from the ANSF and any remaining coalition force ahead of the presidential elections next April, the report added.
"Criminal networks, insurgent groups, and corrupt government officials are often interlinked via multi-layered connections, making ties between the officials and the criminal activity difficult to prove and prosecute," it said. "These factors all contribute to popular disaffection with the government and create opportunities for the insurgency."
Kagan said in his testimony last month that dealing a blow to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups—a goal that appears to have suffered in the absence of U.S. advisory forces in Iraq—remains vital to national security.
"American national security requires defeating al Qaeda and all other affiliated groups that seek to kill Americans, working with local partners to prevent those groups from maintaining or re-establishing safe-havens from which to do so, and retaining the ability to take direct action against those groups if and when required," he said. "It is also a fact that the war in Afghanistan is not yet either won or lost and it can still go either way."