Five ways the next president can salvage Afghanistan before it's lost
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When President Obama announced Wednesday that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan at the end of his term, he framed the decision as an effort to ensure “that my successor has a solid foundation for continued progress in Afghanistan as well as the flexibility to address the threat of terrorism as it evolves.”

As an Afghanistan veteran who knows a vigorous U.S. presence is needed to ensure stability and security, I believe the president is making the right call. But I’m hard pressed to see how he’s leaving a “solid foundation for continued progress.” Obama leaves behind an Afghanistan that’s in worse shape than it was when he took office — and it will be up to his successor to salvage the progress that has been lost.


I served with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan from 2006-2007, where I led a platoon that faced down determined Taliban fighters in repeated engagements over the course of a 485-day deployment.

When I returned home in 2007 after being wounded in combat, it was difficult being separated from my platoon after all we’d been through together. But I took solace in knowing our aggressive approach was getting results, and that the Taliban’s support was tenuous and weakening.

Fast-forward nine years and it appears my optimism was misplaced. The resurgent Taliban now commands more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. And while our counterterrorism strategy was ruthlessly effective in uprooting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the influx of Islamic State fighters in the last two years illustrates how quickly a failed state can serve as a magnet for terrorist groups.

The reason for these disheartening trends: the Obama administration has pursued a policy of slow motion retreat in Afghanistan for years. After a surge that boosted the total force to 100,000, the president has steadily reduced the troop presence, all the while telegraphing his desire to ultimately get out of Afghanistan.

The Taliban, and now the Islamic State, got the message. When President Obama declared an end to combat operations in December 2014, they kept right on fighting. They recognized the Obama administration’s timelines and deadlines as an encouragement to hold on until the Americans were gone. And thus we find ourselves today with a situation that is, at best, a fragile stalemate.

But the Obama administration has just over six more months in office, which means the true future of Afghanistan will rest in the hands of the next president. Regardless of who wins the race in November, they must be prepared to undo the wrongs of the last eight years:

Make the mission clear. The Obama administration’s dithering gave the impression that the president only wanted out of Afghanistan, which has sown confusion and uncertainty. As a result, many of those serving in uniform in Afghanistan are unsure of what they are doing or why. Clearly define the goals and what the end-state should look like—and then give them the tools they need to make it happen.

Rebuild and strengthen bonds of trust with military leadership. Particularly in Afghanistan, trust between the president and the military brass has been frayed. The next president must work to rebuild that mutual trust and listen to the advice of field officers. Start by paying close attention to Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and a strong leader with smart instincts.

Get our allies on board. Recent reports that NATO is set to approve continued training and support for the Afghanistan mission are reassuring. Obama’s successor should move swiftly to shore up this international support and ensure that our allies remain invested in the outcome.

Recognize and maximize the strengths we have. The U.S. military is the most powerful and effective fighting force the world has ever seen—but combat troops are stymied by restrictive rules of engagement that result in missed opportunities and missions without end. Hunting down bad guys, not nation-building, is their specialty. Give them the flexibility they need to get the job done.

Recognize the limitations of what can be achieved. No matter what happens, there is a zero percent chance that the tribal society of Afghanistan will emerge post-war as a strong, stable, advanced economy like Germany, Japan or South Korea (all of which, we should note, continue to host substantial U.S. military presences decades after the end of hostilities). But we can still guarantee a measure of stability and security to ensure that Afghanistan does not devolve into a haven for extremists and terrorist organizations—thereby creating the conditions in which the Afghan people can ultimately prosper.

The reality is that in spite of the Obama administration’s incoherence and diffidence, the conditions for a positive outcome in Afghanistan are there. It will be up to the president’s successor to achieve that outcome.

Parnell is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."