Showing why he is one of the brightest lights in the GOP freshman Senate class and one of the best national security minds in either party, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, made a compelling argument for our continued military presence in Afghanistan during a speech at the United States Institute of Peace.
He began by reminding us why we fought there. “[L]et’s never forget Afghanistan is where al-Qaeda was born. It’s where Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani Network, which remains one of the most virulent insurgencies in Afghanistan, invited Osama bin Laden to set up his first training camps in the 1980s. It’s where the Taliban under Mullah Omar sheltered bin Laden and refused to give him up after the 9/11 attacks. It’s where al-Qaeda leadership would love to return.” He nevertheless cautioned that “the Taliban and allied jihadists continue to attack the Afghan security forces, testing them and trying to demoralize them.” The economic and political situation is likewise dicey.
And he reviewed progress that has been made. We have witnessed a transition in Afghanistan to democracy with recent elections. Phenomenal improvement in access to public health, education, literacy and infrastructure have occurred. The Afghan National Security Forces leadership, recruitment and partnership with civilian leaders are vastly more successful. But that does not mean these forces are ready to assume full responsibility for national security there. Cotton warns, “While the Afghan National Security Forces have made real gains, they’re not in a place where we can be assured of their long-term stability and success. In the past year alone, nearly 5,000 members of the Afghan military and police have been killed fighting the Taliban—twice the number of Americans killed in the country since 2001. The Afghans continue to need the support of NATO intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, air power, medical evacuation, and logistics.” Yet we are drawing down from 10,000 to 5,000 troops who will largely be confined behind “walled compounds.” All troops, save 1,000, are scheduled to be out by 2017.
So what should the United States do? On the military front, Cotton recommends that we now make a commitment to keep 10,000 troops there until conditions warrant a change and allow our troops flexibility to assist Afghan troops who are targeting and engaging the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other groups. He also urges that we give substantial international aid, conditioned on political progress, and increase our efforts to cut off funds going to the Islamic terrorists there and elsewhere.
His remarks were clear-eyed, sensible and without hyperbole. Unfortunately, the president embodies none of these qualities, so do not expect any change in policy. It was President Obama, after all, who set the pattern of premature withdrawal in Iraq, as Cotton pointed out. (“One need only look west to Iraq. Against the best military judgment of his commanders, President Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq in 2011—a decision he telegraphed in early 2009. Things looked good at the time. Thanks to the bravery of our troops and the skill of our intelligence and diplomatic professionals, the Iraq war was all but won and al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated. But we managed to snatch disaster from the jaws of certain victory. The Iraqi Security Forces were not yet ready to fight alone, without western combat enablers.”) Now we face the rise and spread of the barbaric Islamic State, as it retakes territory and cities previous won through the expenditure of American blood and treasure.
Let’s hope history does not repeat itself in Afghanistan before we get a new commander in chief as grounded in reality as Cotton. As capable as defense secretary nominee Ashton Carter is, I don’t imagine that he’ll be able to persuade Obama to take Cotton’s advice.