BY U.S. SENATOR TOM COTTON –
America has waged war and peace in Afghanistan for over 13 years. Our taxpayers have spent much, and our troops have bled and died there in a difficult effort to make America safer. I understand that many Americans are weary with the war, even frustrated, with Afghanistan’s seemingly endless complexities and problems. Few people are more aware of these difficulties than me and the men and women with whom I had the honor to serve in Afghanistan.
Regrettably, many Americans think of Afghanistan only as a hopeless endeavor. But Wednesday its new president, Ashraf Ghani, will address Congress for the first time and explain what those of us who served there already know: Afghanistan is not hopeless.
Afghans, Americans and international partners have made tremendous gains there — gains that have made our country safer and more secure while giving millions of Afghans a chance to live safe, healthy, honorable and meaningful lives. In order to protect these gains, we must commit to supporting improved Afghan security and governance.
Conditions Have Gotten Better in Afghanistan
Afghanistan today is a wholly different place than it was prior to 2001. Those who have served there over the years know that NATO’s presence truly has changed the country in important ways — from health care, education and infrastructure to governance and security.
An increasingly robust and capable Afghan National Security Forces has continued to fight hard against enemy counteroffensives even as our forces have been dramatically reduced. Recruitment for both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is strong. And, as Congress will hear Wednesday, NATO has new, more cooperative and pro-Western partners in President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah.
Conditions Will Get Worse if the U.S. Doesn’t Maintain Its Commitment
Despite this progress, Afghanistan’s gains will be lost if the United States doesn’t reverse its deadline-driven withdrawal irrespective of conditions on the ground. When I was deployed to Afghanistan, the bad guys liked to say, “Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Regrettably, the current withdrawal plan may prove them right.
I applaud President Barack Obama’s decision Tuesday to keep the current number of troops in Afghanistan through the end of the year — though I fear that number is already too low. And as the president considers a new drawdown trajectory, it’s important to consider the potential consequences of a total time-bound withdrawal from Afghanistan. Without our support, the front-line Afghan troops are likely to struggle increasingly against the enemy. Withdrawing support and weakening the Afghan National Security Forces will allow enemy gains that could splinter the country. From there, I fear Afghanistan would descend into a downward spiral.
One needs to look no further than the situation in Iraq to see the consequences of a deadline-driven withdrawal. At one point, the Iraq War was all but won and Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated. But President Obama’s premature troop withdrawal allowed the enemy to regroup and the new armies of the Islamic State to flourish. We should not repeat the mistake of Iraq in Afghanistan, where the consequences could be even worse.
What the U.S. Needs to Do
The president’s announcement Tuesday was a good start, but he must go further. The United States should commit now to keeping at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan until not just the end of this year, but until 2017, and perhaps beyond. This commitment also will show our partners — the Afghan people and our allies — that we’re serious about keeping Afghanistan on the path to a stable, secure future. And these troop levels will preserve a genuine counterterrorism capability, while ensuring that we can provide critical support to the Afghan security forces. We keep significant forces in other places around the globe as our demonstration to security commitments.
We should also provide our troops with flexibility to engage any enemy in conjunction with the Afghan security forces. Their target shouldn’t be limited to certain terrorist groups. In addition to security assistance, we should help Afghanistan through the coming loss of large amounts of international aid and ensure President Ghani is committed to building the Afghan economy over time.
Above all is this central fact: Afghanistan is at the heart of America’s national security policy. Were it not for Al Qaeda’s safe haven there, we might not have been attacked on 9/11. And Afghanistan stands as our one, irrefutable victory in the war against Islamic terror: We expelled Al Qaeda, and it hasn’t returned. President Obama, commit to making sure it remains that way.