Issue brief: Afghanistan and Pakistan

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The Electoral Issue:

America's war in Afghanistan, after more than a decade and over 2,000 American casualties, is drawing to a close. Troops are scheduled to leave by 2014 despite rising violence and a Afghan security force that remains unprepared to step up. The instability poses a threat to neighboring country Pakistan (a nuclear power). Collapse of the country may once again make it a haven for terrorist networks that have been diminished.

The Challenge:

To stabilize Afghanistan as much as possible before our exit, so that it does not provide terrorists safe harbor or destabilize Pakistan.


The Present: More Violence, More Casualties

In 2009, President Obama announced that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total American presence there to almost 100,000. NATO contributions bring the total to approximately 130,000 troops. When Obama announced the surge, he also detailed an exit strategy - we would begin drawing down troops in 2011 and leave Afghanistan entirely by 2014. The new strategy was designed to help the Afghan government contain the insurgency and develop a stronger domestic security force, and improve self-governance.

The price has been steep: the United States was in Afghanistan for almost 9 years before the American death toll reached 1,000, it took only 27 more months for the death toll to reach 2,000.

The Future: Afghan Security & Stability

After American and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, what happens next? It is likely that, with continued counterterrorism efforts, the United States will be able to prevent a reconstitution of large-scale terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Afghanistan, by many measures, is still rife with corruption, plagued by a tenacious insurgency that threatens to overwhelm the country when we leave, lacking a capable domestic security force able to quell the insurgency on their own.

The Afghan National Army currently totals approximately 200,000 soldiers, with a NATO-set goal of 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police by the time foreign troops leave Afghanistan, but many are not fully trained and battle-tested. One member of Afghanistan's Parliament told Time Magazine in 2011, "The time is not right for a transition to Afghan security forces. They are not ready. They are not well trained, and they are not commanded and organized well." Many analysts worry that the Taliban is simply waiting for American and NATO forces to leave before they overwhelm whatever fledgling security apparatus we leave in our wake.


Analysts speak of the "Af-Pak" region because policymakers tend to see Afghanistan and Pakistan as an inextricably linked unit. The border between the two countries - much of it navigating a forbidding, mountainous area - is very porous, difficult to monitor, and even more difficult to secure. Where Pakistan is concerned, what happens in Afghanistan does not tend to stay in Afghanistan. Pakistan is currently hosting approximately 3.5 million Afghan refugees, driven out of Afghanistan by conflicts dating back to the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.

On top of this huge refugee problem, the strong ties between terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan ensure that anarchy in Afghanistan would empower terrorists in Pakistan, who could more easily destabilize the Pakistani government if they could operate from a save haven next door. In an interview with The Guardian, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari blamed the chaos in Afghanistan for destabilizing his country, explaining, "Just as the Mexican drug war on US borders makes a difference to Texas and American society, we are talking about a war on our border which is obviously having a huge effect." The prospect of terrorist activity or instability in Pakistan becomes far more perilous in light of country's nuclear arsenal - estimated at over 100 warheads.

Human Rights

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan increased autonomy for Afghan women, who have been able to attend school and move more freely in Afghan society without fear of reprisal from the Taliban or other militant Islamists. If the Taliban is able to reassert itself, these women will be pulled backward.

Jargon Watch:

"Listen to military commanders and decide based on conditions on the ground."

Some policymakers insist that we should defer to the judgment of the military commanders in Afghanistan when setting a timetable for withdrawal. This sounds like prudent policymaking, but it largely ignores the reality of civilian control of the military. It is up to the president, as Commander-in-Chief, to set military policy; the commanders can advise but are ultimately bound to follow the mission dictated by the president. The office of the presidency, by constitutional design, does not exist as a rubber stamp for the proposals of military commanders.

Next page: Proposals