The revival by ISIS of a brutal Islamist offensive in Iraq makes it urgent to prevent a similar reversal in the Afghan war—and is increasing congressional support for President Obama to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) said today.

Senator Cotton and Andrew Wilder
Senator Tom Cotton served with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. government “should commit now—today—to keeping at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2017, and perhaps beyond,” to prevent the Taliban and their Islamist militant allies from re-establishing control over wide swaths of the country, Cotton said in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. President Obama said in May he would end the U.S. combat and advisory role with Afghan forces by the time he leaves office at the start of 2017.

America is safer today because [of] our efforts in Afghanistan.

Cotton said ISIS guerrillas’ seizure of much of Iraq, four years after Obama ended the main U.S. military mission there, has moved public and congressional opinion to favor scrapping the fixed date for a final pullout from Afghanistan. His remarks came a day after Obama’s nominee as defense secretary, Ashton Carter, told Cotton and other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should “finish the job” in Afghanistan. Carter said he would “recommend … changes (in the pullout plan) to the president” if security conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate.

Debate over the Afghan pullout policy is likely to intensify in the weeks before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits Washington in March. The government headed by Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is more publicly supportive of the U.S. role than was former President Hamid Karzai. That “gives us a chance to reset … the debate” over a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Cotton said.  Cotton, who was elected to the Senate in November, served as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While no political leader relishes changing a policy decision, “President Obama will find that he has not just supporters, but advocates within my own party, as well as his own” for an extension of the military mission in Afghanistan, said Cotton. As the Taliban have intensified their fight to oust the government, the United Nations mission in Kabul counted more than 10,000 Afghan civilians killed or wounded in 2014, making it the deadliest year of the war for non-combatants.

Before his speech, Cotton met at the Institute with former US officials and specialists on Afghan and security policy to discuss Afghanistan, including the troop pullout by 2017. “The argument for a change (in the pullout plan) is strengthened by two factors that have changed since the president made his decision” last year, said former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, one of those in the discussion. They are the collapse of state control in much of Iraq, and a general deepening of Islamist militant threats caused by the growth of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

A difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that “the Afghan people and government want this role” by the U.S. military, said Khalilzad, who served as ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Ghani and Abdullah has asked the United States to lead the international community in sustaining financial and other help for Afghanistan for the coming decade.

“Afghanistan is not hopeless,” Cotton said in his speech. “Afghans, Americans, and international partners on the contrary have made tremendous gains there—gains that have made the country safer and more secure, while giving millions of Afghans a chance to live safe, healthy, honorable, and meaningful lives. America is safer today because [of] our efforts in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan is an enduring focus of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which “has been there since 2002, working on initiatives to counter violent extremism, to strengthen the rule of law, [and] support civil society organizations working to prevent and mitigate violent conflict,” said the Institute’s new president, Nancy Lindborg, who introduced Cotton. His speech and discussion at the Institute was co-sponsored by the Washington-based Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a non-partisan group that advocates continued U.S. and international help for Afghanistan.

Related Publications

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In February 2020 the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement that paved the way for the first direct talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan republic since 2001. This nascent peace process has sparked hope for a political settlement to the four-decade-long conflict, although slow progress and increasing levels of violence threaten to derail the process before it gains momentum.

Type: Fact Sheet

Revitalizing Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance

Revitalizing Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

By: William Byrd

Revitalizing Afghanistan’s badly damaged Ministry of Finance is critical for the state’s survival today and will be equally important during a peace process or under any interim or power-sharing arrangement. Without curbs on political interference and corruption at the ministry, Afghanistan will be hard pressed to ensure that aid pledges made at November’s Geneva international conference materialize.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment; Democracy & Governance

“No Going Backward”: Afghanistan’s Post–Peace Accord Security Sector

“No Going Backward”: Afghanistan’s Post–Peace Accord Security Sector

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

By: Annie Pforzheimer; Andrew Hyde; Jason Criss Howk

Failure to plan realistically for needed changes in Afghanistan’s security sector following a peace settlement—and failure to start phasing in changes now—will lead to post-settlement instability. This report examines the particular challenges Afghanistan will face, with examples from the climate following peace settlements in other parts of the world offering insight into what may occur and possibilities for response.

Type: Peaceworks

Justice, Security & Rule of Law

New Evidence: To Build Peace, Include Women from the Start

New Evidence: To Build Peace, Include Women from the Start

Thursday, March 11, 2021

By: Veronique Dudouet; Andreas Schädel

In the 20 years since governments declared it imperative to include women’s groups and their demands in peace processes, experience and research continue to show that this principle strengthens peace agreements and helps prevent wars from re-igniting. Yet our inclusion of women has been incomplete and, in some ways, poorly informed. Now a study of recent peace processes in Colombia, Mali, Afghanistan and Myanmar offers new guidance on how to shape women’s roles. A critical lesson is that we must ensure this inclusion from the start.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

View All Publications