Last week the United States celebrated its 14th New Year in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in which the US has fought. While 2015 was technically the first year Americans were no longer engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, 22 US military members lost their lives including six US Air Force personnel on December 22nd. In addition to the US military fatalities, another five coalition military personnel perished and more contractors — who outnumber US troops three to one — but for them no official numbers are kept.
This is the year the US war in Afghanistan was planned to end. The 9,800 troops in country were intended to be cut in half by the end of 2015 with a slow withdrawal of the remainder by the end of 2016 (much like the Iraq withdrawal.) But there were some . . . issues with the Iraq withdrawal and the security situation in Afghanistan is the worst it has been since 2001. Even in Kabul, it is too dangerous for the State Department to drive from the Embassy to the airport.
The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash.
So instead, at least 5,500 troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of the Obama presidency where the next administration will decide how to proceed with the war that the US has been fighting since Carson Daly hosted MTV’s Total Request Live.
The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash. Despite the $685 billion spent, over 3,500 US and coalition troops killed, and perhaps 200,000 Afghan civilians killed, the Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan today than they have since the 2001 invasion.
Unfortunately, as 2016 rolls in the Taliban is not the only failed American objective in Afghanistan. Even al-Qaida is enjoying a resurgence. In October of last year, “probably the largest” AQ training camp was destroyed in Kandahar province. One spanned over 30 square miles — roughly three times the size of the largest US base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield (though much less populated.)
Additionally, there is a new threat in Afghanistan in 2016 that did not exist fourteen years ago: Islamic State. IS only controls small portions of southeast Afghanistan now (see this excellent Frontline episode) but could gain momentum if they keep paying large signing bonuses to former Taliban fighters.
Looking forward, 2016 will be another challenging year for US forces in Afghanistan. 2015 brought a large, but mostly unsuccessful offensive from the Taliban that allowed them to briefly control Kunduz. They did not manage to capture any more city centers, but 2015’s warm winter has prevented a traditional lull in the fighting season. Only a week into 2016, the US has found itself in a “combat situation” once again in Marjah, with one Army Special Forces soldier killed and two others injured.
It is clear that as US and coalition partners reduce their military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban, AQ, and other unfriendly actors will fill the power vacuum in place of the Afghan government. It also seems unlikely that the Obama administration will commit more troops to a war it pledged to end.
I do not anticipate the state of Afghanistan in 2016 to become more secure — and it is not foreseeable that the US will find an endpoint to its counterterrorism mission this year. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it will probably be 2017 before any meaningful policy shift in either direction occurs from the United States. For now, Afghanistan will continue to exist in a strange state of non-war where American combat operations do not occur but combat situations do.