Afghanistan in Peril
Is the Afghan Government on the Brink of Collapse?

Afghanistan doesn’t make headlines often these days, but the country’s smoldering conflict has been so stoked by ISIS advances, a Taliban insurgence, and a deeply divided government that it could only take a slight wind to set the whole place ablaze. A new Council on Foreign Relations report by Seth Jones of RAND warns that as bad as things are in Afghanistan, they could be about to get a whole lot worse:

A significant worsening of the political and security situations in Afghanistan over the next twelve to eighteen months is therefore plausible. More specifically, there is a growing risk that the current National Unity Government in Kabul could collapse because of a defection by Abdullah, a severe economic crisis, the establishment of a parallel government, or a coup d’état. There is also a growing possibility that the Taliban could gain substantial territory in one or more cities.

The point of the CFR report is contingency planning; while Jones is not predicting that any of these scenarios will certainly occur, he is suggesting that there’s a good chance one of them could, and provides a number of recommended responses from the U.S. should the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate further. Let’s hope that President Obama has read it in detail and is prepared to defend what he has said about Afghanistan’s troubles:

We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

Obama didn’t speak those words in response to recent events—he said them before West Point cadets in a 2009 speech justifying an Afghan troop surge he approved after months of deliberations. Nearly seven years later, the Taliban has once again seized the momentum, the Afghan government is fragile to the point of collapse, and the professionalism of Afghan security forces remains underwhelming, to put it mildly.

Obama campaigned in 2008 with an understanding of Iraq as the “bad war” and Afghanistan as the “good war,” thinking that both conflicts could be stabilized quickly and that he could withdraw troops on orderly timetables with little in the way of consequences. In 2012, with conditions improving somewhat thanks to the increased troop presence, Obama was bold enough to insert some language on Afghanistan into his stump speech:

I told you we’d end the war in Iraq; we did. I said we’d end the war in Afghanistan; we are. I said we’d refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11; Al Qaida is on the path to defeat, and Usama bin Laden is dead. […] I’ve kept those promises.

Obama the candidate benefited from short-sighted policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Obama the president may not fare so well when history judges his handling of them. By portraying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as successes, Candidate Obama was able to outflank Mitt Romney on national security issues, traditionally a source of Republican strength in presidential contests. But President Obama has no more campaigns ahead of him and is leaving a mess behind him.

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