Today, President Obama announced that he would extend the presence of roughly 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term in January 2017, revising previous plans to cut force levels to around 5,500 soldiers at the end of the year. Afghanistan will be among the top issues for the NATO Summit of leaders in Warsaw, taking place later this week on July 8-9. USIP Vice President for Asia Programs Andrew Wilder, who recently returned from Afghanistan, discusses the issue of troop numbers, how the country’s system of political power-sharing is going between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and what has been the effect of new Taliban leadership since a U.S. drone strike killed the successor to longtime leader Mullah Omar in May.

Members of the Afghan Army stand in formation during training, overseen by U.S. Army soldiers at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2016. President Barack Obama inched closer recently to allowing American forces to once again directly battle the Taliban, loosening restrictions on airstrikes and on ground combat in support of Afghan forces, the administration said on June 10.
Members of the Afghan Army stand in formation during training overseen by U.S. Army soldiers at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in March. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Ferguson

President Obama’s announcement follows a decision in 2015 to slow down the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from the current 9,800 to just an embassy presence by the end of 2015, as well as a more recent order last month giving U.S. military leaders more leeway on decisions to conduct strikes on the Taliban in defense of Afghan forces. Today’s decision also follows an internal review of the current security situation that was led by Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in March. The review was submitted to the president in June.

“I think today’s decision, combined with the increased authorities to use force given to General Nicholson, significantly reduces the prospects for major strategic battlefield gains by the Taliban.”

Former U.S. ambassadors and former military commanders also had appealed for the president to maintain the current troop level through the end of his term in January. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter previously indicated that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will continue operating all six of its bases in Afghanistan next year, and U.S. Special Representative Richard Olson signaled last month that the U.S. would commit at the Warsaw summit to provide at least $3 billion in annual military assistance to Afghanistan through 2020.

Despite serious economic and security challenges, including high casualties among civilians, Afghan security forces and the Taliban, Wilder says he found somewhat more stable political conditions on this visit than he has seen since 2014.

What factored into the Obama administration’s decision to change its plans and extend the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan past the end of this year?

Since the December 2014 official shift in the mission of U.S. and NATO forces away from combat operations and to a more limited mission of training, advising and assistance, the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) have held on against the Taliban despite serious casualties and attrition. But a shortage of logistics, airpower and intelligence capabilities, among other challenges, means they are still dependent on international troops for those functions. Prior to today’s announcement, President Obama’s authorization offering U.S. forces in Afghanistan more leeway to target Taliban forces, even while keeping the mission primarily focused on training and counterterrorism strikes, has helped strengthen the ANDSF’s ability to beat back Taliban attacks.

I was hoping the president would keep troop levels at the current 9,800 through the rest of his administration, but 8,400 is certainly better in my view than the previous plan to reduce the force to 5,500 by January. I think today’s decision, combined with the increased authorities to use force given to General Nicholson, significantly reduces the prospects for major strategic battlefield gains by the Taliban.

In my view, the political impact of the troop decision is just as important as the security impact, because it sends an extremely important political signal to the Afghan government and Afghan security forces, as well as our international allies and regional neighbors, as well as to the Taliban, that the U.S. remains committed to supporting Afghan stability over the long term. Most Afghans I spoke with during my recent visit to Kabul were anxiously awaiting this decision, as well as the announcements of  funding commitments to provide ongoing support to the ANDSF at the NATO summit in Warsaw later this week. Today’s announcement by President Obama, followed by announcements of ongoing support to Afghanistan at the Warsaw NATO Summit, are likely to contribute to greater political stability by increasing the confidence of Afghans that the international community is not abandoning Afghanistan.

Is the power-sharing arrangement between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah still as fractious, now almost two years in?

While there are still considerable rumblings against the National Unity Government (NUG) by political opposition figures like former President Karzai, conversations during my most recent visit to Kabul suggest that the NUG is functioning better than before. There also seems to be a somewhat less dysfunctional relationship between President Ghani and CEO Abdullah than previously.

The most notable explanations was Secretary Kerry’s statement during his visit in April that the unity government’s term would not expire at the two-year mark later this September. That took the wind out of the sails of the political opposition by clearly signaling that the U.S. and its international partners would not support ‘Plan B’ alternatives to the NUG.

Other factors that were reported to have given a boost to the NUG were the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, the unifying effects of rising Afghan nationalistic sentiments following recent clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces at the Torkham border crossing, and the announcement of several major infrastructure initiatives. The completion of the Indian government-funded Salma Dam, which was inaugurated with great fanfare by President Ghani and Prime Minister Modi, also was said to help.

Furthermore, the recent parliamentary confirmations of the last major vacant Cabinet positions—the Minister of Interior, Attorney General, Minister of Defense, and head of the National Directorate of Security intelligence service—mean that there are fewer powerful appointments for the Ghani and Abdullah teams to fight over.

Wasn’t there supposed to be a parliamentary election this fall?

The question of when parliamentary elections will be held is still unclear. The current parliament’s term ended in June 2015, but was extended indefinitely by President Ghani after little progress was made by the NUG in reforming electoral institutions and procedures following the disputed 2014 presidential election. This spring, Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced that elections would be held in October 2016. But continued inaction and disagreement over electoral reforms make it virtually impossible for that deadline to be met.

What are the obstacles?

Some of the electoral issues have been technical in nature—the introduction of a new system of IDs for Afghanistan’s voter rolls has been a persistent challenge—but the heart of the dispute has been over questions of who will oversee the electoral process. Chief Executive Abdullah in particular has pushed for the ouster of the current members of the IEC, whose tenures would normally run until 2019. But the parliament has yet to authorize changes to the law that would allow for those commissioners’ removal. The lower house of parliament has rejected two electoral reform decrees issued by the president thus far.

So when might parliamentary elections be feasible?

The government has pledged to hold elections, but questions of political will within the NUG to prioritize electoral reform, the perverse incentive for parliamentarians not to approve new electoral reform decrees so that they can continue in their positions without elections, the deteriorating security situation, and the question of donor funding for the basic logistical efforts required for holding an election, all suggest that the earliest parliamentary elections could be held would be sometime in 2017.

On my recent visit several Afghan and international officials even questioned whether 2017 was a realistic timeframe for an electoral reform agenda to be agreed upon and elections held. Some suggested that it might be more realistic to push for more comprehensive electoral reforms that could be instituted in time for combined presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

What has been the effect of the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan on May 21?

It’s still unclear. Certainly among the Afghans I met with in Kabul it was a very popular move, and was one of the factors they said had have given a boost to the popularity of the NUG. The most important aspect of this drone strike for many Afghans was not the fact that Mullah Mansour had been killed, but that for the first time ever, the U.S. had killed a top Afghan Taliban leader in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which has long provided a safe haven for senior Taliban leaders.

Many Afghans, including former President Karzai, have often complained that the U.S. was focusing too much of its war effort against the rank-and-file Taliban in Afghanistan, instead of focusing on what they perceived to be the source of the problem across the border in Pakistan. While it remains to be seen if this was a one-off tactical strike, or represents a strategic shift in U.S. policy, Afghan and international officials noted that, at a minimum, it would have the effect of making the Taliban leadership in Pakistan feel less secure.

What are you hearing about the new Taliban leader?

The surprising speed with which the Taliban leadership announced the appointment of a new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, suggests that he was a consensus choice—probably in part because he was not seen as especially objectionable or a threat by any of the major factions. Current and former Afghan officials I met with perceive him to be a weak leader, certainly in comparison to Mullah Mansour, because he doesn’t have political or military leadership experience. Some also noted that he doesn’t have access to the considerable financial resources (from licit and illicit sources) that Mullah Mansour was reputed to control.

A common perception was that the appointment of a relatively weak leader suggests that Sirajuddin Haqqani, reconfirmed as a deputy leader of the Taliban, will play a much more prominent role, but that this in turn could cause further splits within the Taliban down the line.  Unfortunately, with or without Mullah Mansour, it’s hard to currently foresee violence levels being reduced and prospects for a substantive peace process getting on track anytime soon.

What’s happening on the economic front?

Unfortunately, the predictions that there would be a sharp downturn in economic growth following the departure of most foreign troops and the bursting of the war economy bubble are proving accurate. One of the main factors fueling discontent with the NUG has been the dramatic slowdown of the economy and the resulting loss of many jobs, and yet this is not an issue over which the NUG has much control.

So what are the Afghan government and its international supporters doing about that?

President Ghani’s government has prioritized a “jobs for peace” program, but to date there has not been sufficient donor interest in supporting this initiative. During my visit, both Afghan and international officials stressed the importance of donors making robust funding commitments at this week’s NATO Summit to continue supporting the ANDSF until 2020, as well as the equally important commitments to provide civilian assistance for the next four years at the Brussels conference in October.

What’s being done to shore up Afghanistan’s economy?

There has been progress on some large signature infrastructure projects, such as the Salma hydroelectric dam in Herat that was recently inaugurated during the recent visit to Afghanistan by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There have also been steps forward on the CASA-1000 electricity distribution line and the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan- Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. While these are likely still many years from fruition, and don’t address some of the immediate needs for employment, they do offer some much-needed signals of long-term economic investment in the country, and that the NUG is doing something to try to promote economic development.

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