This article was first published on RealClearWorld, and is part of the MEI series titled: "The Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Elections."
Many of the Afghan state's vital signs are weakening. The transition necessitated by the withdrawal of most American and NATO forces has proven exceedingly difficult. Security has diminished, especially over this last year, as the Taliban have made steady military gains. Roughly half of the country's 34 provinces are under severe or strong risk of falling to the insurgents, according to a recent U.N. report. The economy is struggling to adjust to a sharp drop-off in military-related spending.
Meanwhile, an Afghan unity government beset with political wrangling has failed to make progress against endemic corruption, or to bring about other promised reforms. In foreign policy, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's efforts to improve relations with Pakistan -- a means of initiating a peace process with the Taliban and furthering a strategy of regional economic integration -- are being tested.
The actions of the Obama administration in 2016 can significantly affect the Afghan government's prospects of overcoming the security, economic, and political challenges that threaten the viability of its unity government, and ultimately that of the Afghan state. What happens this year in Afghanistan, when taken together with the last seven years of the Obama presidency, will also figure prominently in shaping its legacy.
As in so many other conflicts in the Greater Middle East, there are bound to be surprises, and American policy in Afghanistan needs to be recalibrated during this election year. Yet even in an election in which American foreign policy is expected to have considerable salience, Afghanistan is unlikely to emerge as a prominent campaign issue.
Partisan differences in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan run less deep than in Syria and Iraq. To the extent that Afghanistan receives attention, most Republican aspirants and the eventual nominee can be expected to promote a more robust military role than the Obama administration has undertaken. While neither party is likely to advocate a greatly expanded U.S. military presence, Republicans can be expected to go further than Democrats in calling for an increase in trainers with the Afghan army, more Special Forces tasked with targeting terrorist groups, and increased close air support for Afghan army units. Republican demands for additional personnel and financial commitments in Afghanistan could, however, lose out to Syria and Iraq in the competition for additional military assets.
President Obama had until mid-2015 planned a complete pullout of all American military personnel by the end of his term of office. His October 2015 decision to leave 5,500 U.S. troops in the country is important, because it does not foreclose the support options available to his successor as president. NATO has also announced that it hopes to have as many as 12,000 troops (including U.S.) in Afghanistan through 2016 and has promised to sustain Afghan security forces financially through 2020. But the level and kind of involvement of the United States and its allies is contingent on the performance of the Afghan army, its quasi-military police, and government-backed local defense militias. A major Taliban surge in 2016 or later that puts the Afghan military under severe stress would no doubt compel Washington to reassess the U.S. force structure in Afghanistan, as well as the need for additional material support. In a worst case scenario, rapidly collapsing Afghan defenses could force the United States and its NATO partners to conclude that our further military presence in the country is untenable.
2016 has already seen another effort to launch a peace process with the Taliban. The United States and China have joined the Afghan government and Pakistan, chief among regional powers, to seek a political outcome to the 14-year-old conflict. Hopes rest on the belief that the Taliban and other insurgent groups will agree to a cease-fire, followed by a power-sharing arrangement with the Kabul government. Yet there is little reason to believe that the insurgent leaders are ready to compromise, particularly as they perceive themselves to be succeeding militarily. Moreover, the government's vision of an Afghanistan that fosters democratic institutions and human rights sharply contrasts with Taliban ideas of a Sharia state. Washington's persistence in pursuing reconciliation is an indication of its desperate desire to find a shortcut to bring to an end to an increasingly dispiriting conflict.
One of the larger unknowns in 2016 and beyond is the extent to which the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, will plant roots in Afghanistan. At present, ISIS is dominant in only a small number of provincial districts across the east and north. Its further growth would appear limited by its having to compete for turf and local loyalties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Adherents to the Islamic State are mainly defectors from a fractionalizing mainline Taliban movement in an alliance with several thousand foreign fighters, many of them Uzbeks and Chechens. While the links of the Afghan chapter to the movement's leadership in the Levant appear to be weak, the brand of terrorism in Afghanistan does mimic the brutal practices in several Arab countries, with which it also shares a similar worldview. Should the Islamic State group's influence in Afghanistan expand over the coming months and years, the United States may have to reassess what this means for its strategic stakes in the Afghan conflict, and in the region more broadly.
While there are disagreements over aspects of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, there is a near consensus among experts that the country has entered into a critical period in which the complexion of the conflict with the Taliban could change rather quickly. Will the Taliban's momentum, so evident in 2015, continue, with the insurgents able to hold territory, including large urban centers? Will the Taliban's organizational disaffection accelerate the emergence of younger, more hardline elements, and possibly lead to greater recruitment to the Islamic State? Or might the growing disarray within Taliban ranks provide an opportunity to encourage further disunity and weaken the insurgency? These and other open questions make it virtually certain that U.S. policy in Afghanistan will require recalibration, and must anticipate surprises through this administration and the next.