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Washington Needs To Commit To Afghan Security Beyond 2016

Michael O’Hanlon
Michael O’Hanlon
Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., is widely known for his view that the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year will destabilize the country and threaten regional security and U.S. interests.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Farishta Jalalazai, O'Hanlon said that without bases in Afghanistan, Washington will be unable to monitor and attack Al-Qaeda members and allied extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: Some major Iraqi cities fell into the hands of Islamic militants this week as the country's security forces collapsed. Could Afghan forces follow this example after U.S. troops leave?

Michael O'Hanlon: I am a lot more hopeful for Afghanistan for a couple of reasons. First of all, in Afghanistan, the degree of sectarian tension is much less. I think we see that in the way in which Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are handling themselves in the presidential race -- they have multi-ethnic tickets, they are reaching across ethnic lines.

A lot of Iraq's problems are because Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has failed to improve relations between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. I don't see that the same problem or a similar problem exists in Afghanistan. I believe that the current political leadership in Afghanistan has tried very hard and with some success to build bridges across ethnic lines.

RFE/RL: Al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan following a civil war in the 1990s. Do you think they will return after 14 years of democracy?

O'Hanlon: Yes. The Taliban are an Afghan movement and they have a strong and long association with Al-Qaeda. Also we have a number of Al-Qaeda affiliates or leaders still in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. We think Ayman al-Zawahiri is probably in Pakistan, perhaps in Karachi, perhaps in [the northwestern] tribal areas, perhaps he moves back and forth. He is the number one leader of Al-Qaeda worldwide.

[Pakistan and Afghanistan] are historically very important sanctuaries and safe havens for Al-Qaeda worldwide. I think we should very seriously consider the possibility of a return. We have to help the Afghan government further consolidate its hold on power and its control of its own territory, and keep building up the Afghan security forces. We obviously have to help Pakistan if we can develop productive security relations there, and we need to keep some American capability within combat range of some of the traditional hideouts that Al-Qaeda has employed inside Pakistan.

RFE/RL: So is that the reason you suggest U.S. forces should stay beyond 2016?

O'Hanlon: I believe after 2016 there will be two enduring reasons for the United States to want to keep some limited military capability in Afghanistan. One of them is the ability to carry out or cooperate with Afghanistan in carrying out raids against Al-Qaeda targets that may present themselves. And the other reason is to make sure that Afghanistan's own security forces have the capacity to protect their own territory -- and Afghan security forces are already doing this pretty well. But there are some areas like airpower, intelligence, air evacuation, and a couple of others where Afghanistan is going to need a little bit more help for a little bit longer.

RFE/RL: Why is it so hard to dismantle Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

O'Hanlon: I think we are all frustrated by Pakistan. I have spent a lot of time with American officials, academics, and Afghans over the years trying to brainstorm and think about how we could possibly get Pakistan to be more supportive, and to get Pakistan off the fence because there are ways in which Pakistan tried to help us in this war and ways in which Pakistan has hurt us. The sanctuary problem is a major ongoing concern.

The Pakistanis have limited capacity to deal with [the Afghan Taliban faction led by] the Haqqani [family] and others in the western part of their own country, but I believe part of it is because the Pakistanis are not really sure that they want to even shut down some of these insurgent movements. They may see them as useful leverage against Afghanistan and India, or even the United States.

RFE/RL: How would you pitch the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to fellow U.S. citizens?

O'Hanlon: It’s very simple. We need to keep ourselves safe. We need to be able to prevent Al-Qaeda from attacking us again, and we also need to help our Afghan friends to keep their country safe and stable. It is one way to keep ourselves safe. It also reduces the chances that South Asia will again descend into war. We've seen Indo-Pakistani war on numerous occasions -- we don't want to see that again. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, that could provoke an Indo-Pakistani war, might try to use Afghanistan and its territory for hideouts if they are allowed to, and if the Taliban come back into power.

RFE/RL: Do you think elections could help change things for the better in Afghanistan?

O'Hanlon: I think either Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah would be a good leader of Afghanistan. I hope that the process will allow whoever wins to claim a strong mandate, and the Afghan people will be able to rally and unify behind a winner that they all agree has become the winner. Obviously, we are all concerned about violence, and about fraud, and about suppressed turnout in certain areas so it is going to be a big challenge. But, I think so far Afghans have shown that they are very good at handling this year’s election process.