Recent military gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham are likely to inspire the Taliban to step up its fight in Afghanistan both to take advantage of the U.S. being distracted with the Iraq crisis and to demonstrate the al-Qaeda/Taliban nexus in South Asia is alive and well and capable of retaking territory on its own.
On Sunday, ISIS announced the establishment of an Islamic state stretching from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala. As ISIS continues to gain territory in Iraq, the Taliban is staging a major offensive in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban is focusing on regaining control of the district of Sangin, where drug production centers had flourished, providing a large source of income for the insurgents.
Some members of Congress worry the U.S. is drawing down forces from Afghanistan too quickly and the Taliban will be able to make territorial gains in Afghanistan the same way ISIS has in Iraq in the absence of a substantial U.S. force presence. President Obama recently announced the U.S. will leave a non-combat force of 9,800 troops post-2014, so long as the two sides sign a bilateral security agreement defining the terms of the U.S. deployment. This is the bare minimum of troops necessary to maintain security gains made by NATO and U.S. forces in the last decade.
President Obama said the U.S. will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 — a timetable that is being increasingly questioned by some in Congress in light of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. In describing Obama’s policy on Afghanistan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, R-Ky., said,
“He seems determined to pull out completely, whether or not the Taliban is in a position to re-establish itself, whether or not al-Qaida senior leadership finds a more permissive environment in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and whether or not al-Qaida has been driven from Afghanistan completely – one of our primary aims in this conflict from the beginning.”
In May, a number of members of Congress criticized the Obama administration for releasing five top Taliban prisoners in exchange for U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, arguing it would bolster the insurgency.
President Obama should reconsider his timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in light of recent ISIS gains in Iraq. Otherwise, rather than being the president who ended two wars, he will be remembered as the president who allowed parallel jihadist movements to succeed in two pivotal parts of the world.