U.S. Must Secure Its Gains in Afghanistan

Apr 8, 2013
OpEd from Chairman McKeon in launch of Real Clear Defense

Read on Real Clear Defense

The war in Afghanistan is fast approaching an inflection point. This year, NATO military forces will transition from combat operations to a narrower mission limited to counter terrorism and training and assisting the Afghan security forces.

In spite of the incredible achievements coalition and Afghan forces have made, the region continues to live under the threat of extremism, instability, and nuclear proliferation – which is why a continued presence in central Asia falls squarely in the peg of American national security interests.  And it is not unusual.  Americans have recognized the need for a continued military presence after the end of other combat operations.  Allied forces will focus on standing Afghanistan up as a stable ally in an unforgiving neighborhood, much as we did in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Like our efforts in these countries, we won’t commit our sons and daughters and our treasure simply to ensure democracy in Afghanistan can flourish or to rebuild a war torn country out of kindness.  We must secure our military gains in Afghanistan because ensuring their security and stability is directly related to securing our own.

In many ways it’s harder than any post-war challenge we have previously faced.  Defeating terrorism is a long game. For the scourge of suicide bombings and headline-grabbing attacks on civilians to disappear as a battlefield tactic, not only must the terrorists be beaten in combat, their narrative must be disproven and the civilians they target must reject their tactics and disavow their safe havens.

The Taliban have largely been defeated on the field of battle. They are now limited to headline grabbing attacks in city centers, such as the recent attack during my visit earlier this month, which coincided with Secretary Hagel’s first trip.  As the local Afghans I met with know, a despicable attack on civilians is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Nevertheless, the Taliban perpetuate their spin that the Americans have no more fortitude than the Soviets and will abandon Afghanistan to chaos.  Sadly, but understandably, Afghans are listening.  A crisis of confidence is ensuing.  The Afghans I met with are willing to fight for their country, but they are uncertain we will remain to advise them. We have it within our power to prove the Taliban wrong and ensure Afghanistan is never again allowed to become a spawning pool for terrorists.

Relatively speaking, it won’t take much - significantly fewer forces than we have in Korea today and only a quarter of what the military’s currently spending in Afghanistan.  It now falls on the Obama Administration and the Karzai government to forge a bilateral security agreement that provides the framework for this enduring security.  Unfortunately, President Obama failed to achieve a similar accord with the Baghdad government when the stakes were not nearly as high.  Although Iraq has held together, it is undeniable that Islamic militants now look at Iraq as low-hanging fruit for what should otherwise have been a strong U.S. ally in a pretty tough neighborhood.

A bilateral security agreement is not trivial to negotiate. For our troops to assist our Afghan partners, they need freedom of movement across the countryside. As with the rest of our overseas partnerships, the Government of Afghanistan cannot levy taxes upon our military assistance.  Furthermore, American forces accused of a crime must be held accountable to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Let’s be clear - this does not mean that U.S. forces should be “immune” from prosecution. 

These criteria must be negotiated in full recognition of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.  To agree with these terms, President Karzai must be able to demonstrate that Afghanistan’s security will be improved.  This is one of the few areas where lessons learned from Iraq are helpful. Unless we are willing to clearly articulate our commitment upfront, it is no wonder President Karzai is unwilling to extend his political capital to secure a meaningful agreement. 

This is not to excuse his recent behavior.  It is unconscionable to suggest that we are cooperating with the very same enemy who attacked us, to guarantee a longer presence in Afghanistan.  Every day that we remain is a day that our children, siblings, and parents are gone from us, with the risk that they will not come home.  Every day we remain, taxpayers must write a check from a shrinking bank account.  After September 11th, the majority of Americans swore to stop our enemy from being able to keep its safe havens in Afghanistan.  I was one of those and I am committed to getting the job done right.  But without a willing partner in Afghanistan, I will not support an unworkable strategy that gets us deeper into debt without an increase in our own security.

As a first step, I believe we ought to have a tough, public conversation about troop levels post-2014.  The President is silent on the issue, although there has been plenty of speculation about what the White House might do.  Central Command commander General James Mattis has testified that his recommendation is 13,600 troops.  My take away from speaking to our current commander in Afghanistan, General Joe Dunford, and his predecessor, General John Allen, is that there are risks and opportunities associated with a variety of force levels.  I am sure the President has received wise counsel from each of these officers.

I believe that numbers count. We have our mission with our Afghan allies and we must keep adequate force protection for the troops who stay behind.  For their sake, I would rather pursue a less risky option and dial it back if we are more successful than we anticipate.  General Mattis’ recommendation seems to be a reasonable insurance policy.

This has been a long, tough war. But after a decade of fighting, we’re on the verge of setting Afghanistan on the right path. President Obama can be the President that defied history and pulled Afghanistan from its dark fate, principally for the good of Americans. Or he can be the President that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

113th Congress