Strategic Reversal in Afghanistan


Jun 24, 2016

ISmoke billows from a building after a Taliban attack in Gereshk district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 9, 2016

Smoke billows from a building after a Taliban attack in Gereshk district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 9, 2016

Photo by Abdul Malik/Reuters

In a new Contingency Planning Memorandum produced by the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action, Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, considers what an unraveling of the political and security situation over the next 18 months would mean for Afghanistan and what can be done to prevent it.

Progress achieved in Afghanistan since 2001 has recently come under threat from a resurgent Taliban and growing instability of the Afghan government, notes Jones in “Strategic Reversal in Afghanistan.”

A collapse of Afghanistan's national unity government—already plagued by corruption, slow economic growth, and poor governance—could embolden the Taliban to make advances on major urban areas, which in turn would further undermine support for the government.

A reversal could increase the number of extremist Islamic groups operating in Afghanistan, lead to regional instability, and foster the perception that the United States is not a reliable ally. Jones recommends several steps the United States can take to avoid such an outcome:

  • Sustain the current number and type of U.S. military forces through the end of the Obama administration. Approximately 10,000 U.S. forces are currently in Afghanistan. “President Obama should refrain from cutting the number of U.S. forces to 5,500, as he promised to do by the end of his presidency.”
  • Decrease constraints on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “President Obama should grant the military new authorities to strike the Taliban and Haqqani network, as he did with ISIL-KP in January 2016.”
  • Sustain U.S. support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. “The United States should commit to providing at least $3.8 billion per year for the next five years” to sustain the Ministry of Defense's and Interior's costs.
  • Focus U.S. diplomatic efforts on resolving acute political challenges. The United States should focus “on working with the Afghan government and political elites to reach a consensus on contentious issues such as electoral reform.” With a push to organize parliamentary and district council elections, “it makes little sense to hold elections until there is electoral reform, and Afghanistan should not hold a loya jirga until there is a broader consensus on its ultimate purpose.”
  • Address economic grievances that could trigger violent unrest. U.S. diplomats, working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, could focus on alleviating poor agricultural harvests, rising unemployment, and energy shortages, as well as other issues that exacerbate public opposition.

— Khorshied Samad