Chicago Tribune: Why Afghanistan matters: The US cannot let this battered land fall to terrorists

AUG. 22, 2017 — There are places in the world so potentially volatile that the U.S. cannot leave them to the ebb and flow of geopolitics. The Korean Peninsula and the Middle East come immediately to mind. Afghanistan also belongs on that list — something President Donald Trump has finally come to realize, seven months after taking office.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Trump is poised to authorize sending roughly 4,000 more U.S. troops to the South Asian country, the site of the longest war in America’s history. Like their countrymen already in Afghanistan, these Americans won’t be a combat force. They’ll carry out counterterrorism missions and advise Afghan officers fighting on the front lines against a resurgent Taliban.

Until Monday, Trump had said little about the Afghan conflict, and had not acted on pleas from top military advisers to beef up the U.S. military contingent in Afghanistan. Instead, he had focused on the Islamic State’s presence in northern Iraq and Syria, while keeping Afghanistan as a policy to be determined.

Trump was right to continue helping the Iraqi government root out Islamic State from that country’s second largest city, Mosul, and right to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters in their bid to defeat Islamic State in Raqqa, the militant group’s Syrian stronghold. The Islamic State’s footprint in Iraq and Syria has shrunk considerably, and continues to shrink.

We also think he’s right to broaden the U.S. role in Afghanistan. That country matters — this war matters — because America can pay a high price when it glances away from lands vulnerable to terrorist takeover. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, paid that price in Syria and Iraq. Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 left that country in a state of chaos, and Islamic State rose from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq. Obama’s policy in Syria was halfhearted and troubled — recall the $500 million train-and-equip program for Syrian rebel fighters that yielded only a handful of troops. Many factors contributed to the Islamic State burgeoning into the world’s most feared terrorist group, but Obama’s reluctance to take stronger stands in Iraq and Syria played a part.

Is there a danger of Afghanistan again becoming a terrorist haven, as it once was for al-Qaida before 9/11? Without a doubt. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s military can’t tamp down the carnage, and only 8,400 U.S. and 5,000 NATO troops are there now to train and support them. Ambushes and suicide bomb attacks kill Afghan security forces and civilians with harrowing regularity. According to the United Nations, 11,418 civilians were killed in the country last year — the most since the U.N. started tallying casualties in 2009. Taliban insurgents now hold sway over vast stretches of territory — the most since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Islamic State militants also have established a foothold in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Last week a booby trap laid by the terror group killed an American soldier from Utah and injured 11 fellow troops.

While Trump inherited the chaos that is Afghanistan, it’s his watch now. It’s a relief to see him finally forging an Afghan strategy, because so much is at stake.

Allowing the Taliban, Islamic State and other groups to succeed there creates two perilous scenarios: It turns the country into a rogue state, and thus an ideal training ground for terrorists with designs on attacking targets in the U.S., Europe and beyond. And it supplies militant leaders fodder for their online propaganda to inspire new attacks by lone wolves or sleeper cells.

Left on its own, the fractured, inept Afghan government likely won’t be able to turn the tide against the Taliban. The Afghan army needs a stronger boost from U.S. and NATO troops, who can help Kabul’s military hurt the insurgency enough that Taliban leaders see the value in beginning peace talks. Those talks are the only way Kabul and Washington can break free from the quagmire the Afghan conflict has become.

Every president who faces deployment decisions knows the danger of sending more young men and women into war zones. But letting rogue groups dig deeper into Afghanistan is the greater long-range danger to America. Trump is correct to increase the U.S. role there.

By Chicago Tribune