Foreign Affairs: Adrift in Afghanistan

May 3, 2017

One enormous bomb did not change the war in Afghanistan. Neither did one gruesome attack by the Taliban on Afghan soldiers as the soldiers finished their prayers—an attack so bloody that Afghan authorities ran out of coffins to bury the dead.

But together the two events have shoved a war largely ignored by American politicians and the public back into the spotlight. And now urgent questions must be answered about the near- and long-term future of the fight, for the sake of the U.S. military fighting the war, the American public funding the war, and the Afghan forces working to defend their country.

Time may have passed since the last interagency policy review on Afghanistan, conducted by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, but the questions in need of answers haven’t changed.

First, the United States must be clear about its goals in Afghanistan and how the United States, Afghanistan, and NATO countries can reach a shared understanding of what constitutes stability and success. During a 2009 visit to a NATO base in Afghanistan, an engineer working for Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, described some of the indicators they were measuring. Two days later, I was told that the U.S. embassy had its own indicators. It is likely that every other country’s embassy had yet more measures. And there was little to no coordination among them.

Second, it is time to define the enemy, whether it is the Taliban, Islamic State (ISIS), or both. The 22,000 pound U.S. bomb that dominated headlines last weekend targeted ISIS, not the Taliban. The move caused consternation among Afghans, who wonder why the United States is not as aggressive when it comes to battling the group that is killing Afghans in far higher numbers. The United…