Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Addressing Afghanistan’s Difficulties


Photo Credit: Associated Press

By Tyler Hooper

On 12 March the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, along with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released a document titled “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”  The document outlines eight major “global threats” and numerous major “regional threats” to the U.S.

Among the regional threats, unsurprisingly, is Afghanistan, a country the U.S. has occupied since 2001, making it the second longest U.S. wartime occupation after Vietnam.

The 30-page document consists of four short paragraphs dedicated to Afghanistan and touches on some of the major issues the country is facing. Some of these challenges include the Taliban’s resilient insurgency, the reliance on Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to provide security for the region, and the bleak outlook of the country’s economic future.

The aforementioned issues are in urgent need of being adequately addressed if the future of Afghanistan is to look at all promising. Furthermore, policymakers in the U.S. State Department and White House need to acknowledge that new policies need to be implemented if Afghanistan has any hope of becoming more stable in the near future. Ultimately, the U.S. needs to start seriously considering the legacy it wants to leave in Afghanistan and what kind of role it’s going to play in the future.  

Taliban Insurgency 

The document opens by stating the “Taliban-led insurgency has diminished in some areas of Afghanistan but remains resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals.” To say U.S. attempts at counterinsurgency (COIN) in the region have been successful would be an oversight. As of September 2012, more than 2,000 Americans have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan, and that figure continues to grow.

The U.S. surge in 2010, spearheaded by General David Petraeus, created the mirage that the U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces had the upper hand against the Taliban. However, the Taliban insurgency has grown stronger and successful attacks against coalition forces is becoming much more common. In December, the Taliban attacked a NATO base, which killed six people. Recently, a suicide bomber killed 10 people at a Buzkashi match, including three relatives of Afghan parliamentary speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi. These two examples represent only a fraction of successful Taliban attacks in the last six months. 

Conventional warfare ceases to exist in Afghanistan; Taliban fighters regularly use hit-and-run tactics against U.S. and ISAF forces, which make it difficult for coalition forces to pursue the enemy. Suicide bombs, roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices (some have estimated that IED’s account for 60 percent of U.S. causalities in Afghanistan) and small arms attacks are mostly unpredictable and still a daily threat to coalition forces. In addition, the Taliban tend to hire or recruit locals by bribing them with money, or other forms of goods (food or drugs), making the Taliban extremely difficult to identify amongst the local population. This has created problems for coalition forces, who have a difficult time distinguishing Afghan civilians or farmers from Taliban insurgents. These problems — along with the Taliban’s resilience — have created major problems for U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the region.

Reliance on ANSF and Afghanistan’s Economic Future

In light of the on-going withdrawal of international troops from the region, U.S. and ISAF troops have begun to rely heavily on the ANSF to provide security in both urban and rural areas. The document released by the Intelligence Senate states that the ANSF are capable of providing basic security but will still “require international assistance through 2014 and beyond.”

As of January 2013, the Taliban have killed approximately 1,100 members of the ANSF and that number continues to rise. In addition to the threat of the Taliban, desertion, defection and corruption remain incredibly high among the ANSF troops, and often, the Taliban infiltrate the ANSF in order to create “insider attacks.” Recently, two Americans and six ANSF were killed by an “insider attack” at a military base outside of Kabul, in which the killer disguised himself as an ANSF soldier. These attacks are still occurring regularly, which makes it difficult for U.S. and coalition forces to train, and rely on the ANSF for adequate security.

Ultimately, once the U.S. and ISAF withdraw from the country, ANSF troops will be underpaid, ill equipped and left to fend for themselves against a seasoned and organized enemy. The ANSF do not have the equipment, training, or man power to properly provide security and policing to the country. Finally, many ANSF troops are susceptible to bribes from corrupt officials — this only exasperates the problems amongst the ANSF, calling into question the Afghan soldier’s integrity.

The section of the report that looks at Afghanistan concludes by stating that the economic future of the country does not look optimistic. Specifically, the report states, “the country faces high rates of poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, and poppy cultivation.” The situation is bound to become even worse once U.S. and ISAF forces withdraw the bulk of their military personnel, equipment and resources by 2014. The withdrawal of military personnel, and subsequent security, will make it difficult for NGOs and aid organizations to operate in the country. Consequently, any sort of infrastructure the coalition has built will be unable to sustain itself.

The issues addressed by the report are not the only problems facing Afghanistan. Corrupted local officials, politicians and drug lords play a large role in ensuring instability in Afghanistan, and local law enforcement is often ill equipped to deal with crime. Drugs, specifically opium production, are a major detriment to the rural population and a main source of the drug trade in the Middle East and Asia. Finally, Pakistan — Afghanistan’s ambivalent neighbor — has played a pivotal role in harboring Taliban insurgents, and has its own vested interest in influencing Afghan elections. 

Moving Forward

2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. In addition to U.S. and ISAF forces withdrawing, an Afghan presidential election is scheduled for April. For the average citizens of Afghanistan, the election is bound to change very little given the large amount fraud and corruption that has plagued past presidential elections. If anything, the election will be another opportunity for the U.S. to try and implement a pro-western president. The current president, Hamid Karzai, has recently made attempts to distance his country from U.S. influence, a move that upset Washington.

But Washington also appears to be distancing itself from Afghanistan as foreign policy concerns shift elsewhere. Relations with Iran and Israel, the civil war in Syria, U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East and Africa, Mali, and tensions with North Korea and China have all become major concerns or issues in the State Department. Because of these other matters and the fact that U.S. is winding down its presence in Afghanistan, there appears to be a lack of focus by Washington on what to do with Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan looks very similar to 1989 when the Soviets ended their 10-year occupation of the region. What followed was a civil war that saw drug lords, corrupt officials, and terrorist organizations fight and rampage the entire country. The “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” report is a small indication that Washington recognizes some of the major problems facing Afghanistan. However, time is running out for the U.S. in Afghanistan. The American people have grown uninterested or unengaged in the war, and many want U.S. troops home as quickly as possible. Ultimately, unless the U.S. wants Afghanistan to return to its pre-9/11 frenzied state, which helped provide a staging ground for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington needs to start formulating policies to address these issues — policies that will help the Afghan people, infrastructure and promote regional security. In essence, Washington needs to thinking more progressively when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan.


Tyler Hooper is a freelance writer and journalist from Ottawa, Ontario. He has a Master’s degree in history from the University of Waterloo, in which his studies primarily evolved around Western and South Asian diplomatic relations during the Cold War. Tyler writes on a variety of subjects including politics and technology, but his passion lies in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He has a blog and website at where you can check out the rest of his work. You can also follow him on Twitter @thooper8