By Harron Young
Military fighting has reached its 14th year in Afghanistan, making this the first year of less foreign troops on the ground. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has made it very clear that this war is ongoing and the last thing Afghan troops can do is become complacent. The recent loss (to the Taliban) and take back (by government forces) of the Northern populated city, Kunduz, has made the Afghan government very worried about its own security ability. Afghanistan’s NATO-trained Forces are, for the first time, at the forefront of the fight. Current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan includes about 10,000 U.S. troops training, advising, and assisting the Afghan security forces.
What’s equally as important to recognize along with the rise of the Taliban, and military efforts to stop them, are the civilians caught in the crossfire. Matters have been worsened with the fatal U.S. airstrikes that accidently hit a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital killing 22 people including patients, children, and staff. Days before the fatal U.S. attack, the medical team treated 171 wounded, 46 of which were children, in a matter of three days at the height of the Taliban takeover, as released in a statement by MSF. A majority suffered from gunshot wounds leaving surgeons treating severe abdominal, limb, and head injuries, and thus illustrating the vital role this organization plays in providing vital care for the civilians caught in the path of the Taliban.
The government has taken back control of Kunduz, and the Ministry has oversight of all 34 provinces in Afghanistan, according to Interior Minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi. This occurrence was not only the biggest victory for the Taliban since 2001, but also a huge setback for the Afghan government that is struggling to fight insurgents without the aid of the United States and NATO. Although the U.S. intervened in the situation by providing airstrikes, it does not come without the unwanted and unneeded casualties that resulted in the striking of a Doctors Without Borders hospital, an attack the Pentagon must now answer to.
Joanne Liu, the President of MSF, is working on the presumption of a war crime, as the organization believes this is a breech in International Humanitarian Law, which states that hospitals in conflict zones are protected spaces. Her argument is met with a full investigation according to U.S. General in Afghanistan, Army General John Campbell, who has also testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 6th. U.S. statements on the issue have transformed over time, as first it was recognized as collateral damage, then as a source of self-defense in which the attack was done in the vicinity of the hospital, to finally stating the U.S. was asked for air support by Afghan forces. In response to these events, Gen. Campbell made it very clear while testifying that the “hospital was mistakenly struck,” and “[they] would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
Whatever may be the case, most likely to unravel soon, NATO and the Afghan government have launched separate investigations while officials from MSF have much doubt over the U.S. military’s ability to conduct their own. Between the rise of the Taliban, potentially inadequate Afghani forces, and the death of innocent civilians by a U.S. airstrike, it becomes difficult to understand what the Obama administration will do moving forward, as it once hoped to continue significantly decreasing troops in Afghanistan by 2016, a plan that may now be adjusted and redirected. In this context, General Campbell made it clear before Congress that his view was that US troops would have to stay beyond 2016 to support Afghan forces and ensure the Taliban does not make further gains, telling the House Armed Services Committee that “if we came down to 1,000 there is no counterterrorism structured force in those numbers.” With this, Campbell making the point that Afghan forces still need much help such as close air support and intelligence.
These events in Afghanistan raise the ultimate question of the type of military presence the U.S. will have in this country. The White House is considering changes to its plan of bringing troops in Afghanistan to fewer than 1,000 by 2016. President Obama is now currently considering a proposal by Army General Martin E. Dempsey to keep as many as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2016; those forces left would focus primarily on counterterrorism against the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda.
Recently, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Defense Secretary Ash Carter discussed further plans in Afghanistan before the NATO defense ministers. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Carter explained the three main actions the United States is taking; The U.S. will maintain close to 10,000 troops through the end of this year, begin to formulate options for 2016 and beyond, and adjust the planned U.S. presence in Afghanistan based on the current situation. NATO is awaiting a decision by the Obama administration for future action in Afghanistan to decide the organization’s next steps, although Carter has made it clear that, “NATO allies reaffirm their commitment- discussing not whether but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan.” It has been said by U.S. officials that this post 2016 decision will be released soon, most likely in opposition to President Obama’s dreamed of legacy, officially taking all troops out of Afghanistan.