U.S. leaders debate whether to put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria because some officials believe political reformation will stop the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and other policymakers believe force is the key to defeating ISIS. America is already implementing a strategy to reform the Afghanistan government through U.S. ground forces. America plans to fully withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan in 2016 to put an end to the war started against the Taliban after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Continued U.S. commitment beyond 2016 to boost the security of Afghanistan should be the first step in the fight against ISIS.
The Brookings Institution and United States Institute of Peace hosted briefings about Afghanistan that encouraged developments in the current state of the former Taliban controlled country, such as the creation of Afghanistan’s new national unity government, and the increase in the safety of major cities from Taliban attacks. The Afghan government, under leadership of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, recently met in Pakistan with heads of the Taliban to discuss compromises to stabilize the country. Even though the Taliban uses terror as a strategy, the State and Defense Departments agree that a peace process requires U.S. support. Without Washington’s assistance, the growing presence of ISIS hinders hopes to stabilize Kabul.
ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, quickly became the center of attention since the summer of 2014 due to its terror activities – its doctrine appears increasingly attractive to jihadists around the globe because of the power ISIS gained in a short period of time. These younger and more energized Islamic extremists have captivated the youth of the world by promising to build a global “Caliphate,” a society in which Islam is the foundation of the government, by promising salvation to those who sacrifice their lives to build this society. Some older groups like Al Qaeda, a known supporter of the Taliban, are strong enough to combat ISIS and continue to threaten the U.S. However, Al Qaeda fighters constantly defect to ISIS and other small terror groups fold and pledge allegiance to ISIS.
With many people joining ISIS from around the world, efforts must be made to keep Taliban members from joining. The rivalry between ISIS and the Taliban is no secret. In the past, Taliban leaders rejected Al-Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” because they see themselves as a political movement tied to a mixture of Islamic beliefs and the culture of the Pashtun tribesmen, natives of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban also believes it is the rightful government of Afghanistan. As a result, more Taliban fighters are taking sides with ISIS because they now believe the new terrorist organization can secure a government which embodies their Islamic beliefs. With some effort from the new Afghan government, other Taliban fighters may be persuaded that ISIS is not a good option for the country, and may be encouraged to work alongside Afghanistan President Ghani to drive ISIS out. Can this be possible if the U.S. withdraws its troops next year?
Investing more time to decrease the likelihood that ISIS will gain a strong foothold in South Asia may be worth the effort, especially if Washington decides to place troops in Syria. If Washington withdraws before Kabul is completely secure, the American fight against ISIS could be hindered for several reasons: ISIS could create a safe haven for itself in South Asia if its fight goes sour in Iraq and Syria, and Washington would have to redeploy troops to Kabul to finish a war with ISIS. International partners such as India and China would be busy fighting insurgents in Afghanistan instead of working with Washington to stabilize Syria. U.S. efforts should be concentrated in Damascus, but this would be difficult if America does not have Kabul as a stable ally. Afghanistan could provide important resources such as oil and other materials needed for military technology, a close retreat for U.S. soldiers based in Syria, and local forces in the bigger fight against ISIS, defending South Asia from insurgent groups. Furthermore, the major presence of ISIS could boost morale and membership if Afghan insurgents believe ISIS is strong enough to take on U.S. backed forces.
While the U.S. fight against the Taliban differs from its fight with ISIS, continued U.S. commitment to secure Afghanistan is a good first step. Securing Kabul prevents ISIS from spreading into South Asia, allows the U.S. to place more focus on Syria and Iraq, and Washington could create an ally equipped to assist in the future larger fight. With the Taliban’s lack of leadership, the spread of ISIS’ ideology increases as more Afghan insurgents join. Maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan creates more costs in time and resources, but having troops remain in Kabul is easier than sending them back to Afghanistan if those troops are needed in Syria.
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