Afghanistan War: It Slipped From the Headlines, But Is Still Critically Important

President Obama announced significant troop drawdowns in Afghanistan in his State of the Union address last Tuesday and signaled his intention to bring the drawn-out, unpopular war to a close.

President Obama’s decision to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan by 34,000 by the end of 2013 and conclude the conflict by the end of 2014 reflects changing public opinion on the war.

While the public backed Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan far longer than its counterpart in Iraq, support has waned in recent years. Pew Research reports that in October 2012, 60% of Americans wanted the American troops in Afghanistan withdrawn “as soon as possible.”

The White House and the State Department have devoted relatively little attention to publicly discussing Afghanistan in recent months as the public’s attention has turned to other foreign policy issues like Benghazi and Iran.

President Obama’s SOTU announcement on Afghanistan also reflects a larger shift in how the United States has dealt with counterterrorism abroad since the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. As I noted in my SOTU foreign policy roundup last week, the U.S. has moved to a model of funding and training local governments’ counterterrorism efforts instead of deploying American combat troops.

So while the war in Afghanistan may be officially coming to an end in the near future, President Obama has made it clear that unlike in Iraq, the U.S. intends to maintain some presence in Afghanistan, though in a more limited role.

In the State of the Union last week, Obama said that the American mission in Afghanistan post-2014 would shift to “training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.”

This is no easy task. As many foreign policy commentators as well as administration officials have noted, concerns remain about the stability of Afghanistan’s government and the preparedness of its security forces.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that while there have been security gains and the Afghan government has been substantially more cooperative with the United States, “only one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own” and the rest will require continuing U.S. support.

The Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman highlights the pervasive problems of illiteracy and drug abuse inhibiting the Afghan security forces. He writes in Foreign Policy that “[a] staggering 95 percent of national army and police recruits are functionally illiterate” and that “[d]rug abuse is similarly acute, with estimates ranging from 40 to 70 percent within the army and police.”

Over at Brookings, Michael O’Hanlon urges Obama and Congress to help nourish Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy by empowering its political parties and establishing research institutions.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies underscores this issue, explaining that the U.S. must devote its attention to crucial state-building issues to ensure the success of its mission.

The consequences for failing to maintain Afghanistan’s stability may be dire, some warn.

Security expert Peter Bergen argues in a recent op-ed for CNN that America must continue to publicly commit to acting as a “guarantor for Afghanistan’s stability” post-2014, as laid out by last year’s Strategic Partnership Agreement in a model similar to the continuing U.S. presence in South Korea. Without this, he argues, Afghanistan may fall into a power vacuum similar to what originally led to the rise of the Taliban 20 years ago.