Joshua Foust is the Asymmetric Operations Fellow at the American Security Project and a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net.
U.S. policymakers are dealing with a skeptical American public environment in terms of Afghanistan. You’ve been doing studies on how to measure success. What are some benchmarks?
Some of the benchmarks are things like political participation, violence levels, the kinds of rhetoric that community leaders are using towards their populations and also the performance of the Afghan government itself, in addition to the performance of the Afghan security services. I just recently published a study of a lot of these metrics and actually cam e to a pretty worrying conclusion which is that we aren’t measuring a lot of the relevant metrics that would tell us whether or not we’re really achieving our goals there. This has pretty significant implications when we think about the future of Afghanistan, the future security environment there, and also the future of America’s posture towards that region as well, because we don’t really have a good sense of how well we’re doing. Even after ten years, and to me at least that was kind of the key timeframe is thinking after a decade we still don’t have a solid understanding of exactly what we’re achieving.
And in terms of the sort of draw down of the surge of troops; how is that going to play onto some of these measurements?
They’re going to change, because right now having so many troops in Afghanistan will create an effect. It distorts people’s perceptions; it changes the choices that they think are available. And when those troops leave, all those perceptions and choices are going to change to a certain extent. I don’t think we have a really good idea of how those are going to change. The official line coming out of NATO is that the transition policy of handing regions over piece by piece to the Afghan security forces will allow there to be a seamless transition between the two groups; between the Afghan forces and the NATO forces. I’m not sure that’s an entirely realistic assessment. I think it’s optimistic. The Afghan forces are not as uniformly competent as NATO forces are. They are not as good with logistically supporting their forces as NATO is. They are not as good as supporting them from an intelligence perspective as NATO is. And so I think there’s going to be a significant disruption in security and in the way that people perceive their own security, but we just don’t know how it’s going to happen yet. There’s a lot of uncertainty.
And what about the NATO alliance itself? It seems we had some announcements earlier this year that France, Germany and other countries wanted to move up their withdrawal timeline. Is that going to play into essentially to a fraction of the coalition in Afghanistan?
I’m not sure the coalition itself is going to fracture. ISAF has a definite end date, so ISAF will end at the end of 2014. And what happens after that is that NATOs going to remain involved in some way in the training mission. A lot of the announcements, like what France has made, Australia is leaving soon, Canada has already left, Germany is talking about leaving. All that comes down to is different countries bargaining over who gets to leave first. While that can create some tension, and it is causing tension among different alliance members, it’s not in danger of really fracturing the alliance because at the end of the day they all know there’s an expiration date on their involvement and they’re just haggling over exactly what that is.
As far as Afghanistan being a security threat to the United States or any other part of the world for that matter. What’s your assessment of that situation?
The terrorism issue writ large, I think, has actually been dealt with. By and large al Qaeda’s ability to launch strikes from Afghanistan is gone. They can’t use Afghanistan right now to launch an attack against the United States. Pakistan is a more complicated question because there remain elements of al Qaeda there. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has taken over al Qaeda, is still in north west Pakistan. We don’t really know where he is and we don’t really know how to get him. That’s going to remain a challenge because ultimately as his position at the head of al Qaeda he exercises some sort of control over the organization. But in terms of a global picture, Afghanistan and Pakistan isn’t really the epicenter of global counter-terrorism efforts anymore. That’s more in Somalia, it’s in more Yemen, to a growing extent it’s in the Maghreb in North Africa, it’s in Nigeria to a lesser extent with Boko Haram.
So we’ve had this kind of metastasizing of al Qaeda from a very limited threat that was coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a definite threat, but it was a limited threat to this much more geographically dispersed challenge and what the United States needs to do, and NATO to a lesser extent, is shift its posture from focusing solely on Afghanistan and Pakistan to a more global sense of how to address the different al Qaeda affiliates that have been growing recently.