Congressman in Aspen says U.S. in for the long haul in Afghanistan
The United States’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq will potentially continue for decades as the threat of terrorism and political instability remains.
That’s according to a panel of experts convened Saturday as part of the final day of the Aspen Security Forum. Some panelists noted that nation building isn’t something that the United States should be engaged in but has to be in some sense in order to combat terrorism.
The U.S.’s “advise and assist” method to help establish democracy in those countries will take years, if not decades, particularly when government corruption and terrorist groups are pervasive, said Adam Schiff, the California congressman who is a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
He said it’s been challenging to help create a government in Afghanistan that its people are willing to fight and die for, and also train an army and police to defend it.
“I have to say as a congressional consumer of enumerable and often upbeat briefings in the defense department over the years, I have become much more skeptical of the sustained ability in those two theaters,” Schiff said.
The panelists opined on what “victory” should look like for the U.S. and its occupation in Afghanistan. It’s been 17 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and experts agree the threat is just as strong today for it happening again.
“The threats that tend to concern me the most are the ones that have the capacity to fundamentally change our lives,” Schiff said. “And so the prospect of another 9/11 attack that could really force us to potentially curtail civil liberties and privacy, or change how Americans can go from one place to another, that’s what tends to keep me up at night.
“I think the greatest threat to our homeland continues to come from that part of the world.”
For that reason, Schiff said he expects to have troops in Afghanistan well into the next decade, if not longer.
Thomas Shannon, former under secretary of the state for political affairs, said it’s going to depend on how the U.S. continues to build its relationships with those governments.
“This is all going to depend on our partners,” he said. “At the end of the day we have learned our lesson well — we do not do well as an occupying power, we do very well as a collaborating power.”
Samantha Vinograd, former director of Iraq, National Security Council, said Americans often group the Iraq and Afghanistan wars together.
She pointed out that they are different threats and different militaries. But she said she believes U.S. troops will still be on the ground for years to come in both countries, although the threat will be higher in Afghanistan 20 years from now.
Schiff said he thinks U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has defined victory the best in that it’s not a military win but a political one with a political resolution that will involve compromise.
Shannon noted that it’s difficult to get on top of ISIS or Al Qaeda in Iraq and also deal effectively with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“I’m going to make an outrageous statement,” he said to the group at the Doerr Hoiser Center on the Aspen Institute campus. “It’s kind of hard to fight terrorism when you are fighting another war at the same time.”
Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combatting terrorism, said while the U.S. shouldn’t be a nation builder around the world, there is a need to break up terrorist threats globally.
“We have to come to grips that this is a different kind of conflict, this isn’t a classic war but in these parts of the world where we have to partner with our counterparts we have to find ways of disrupting these groups, because if we don’t we are going to find ourselves in the position that we are going to have to come back in more aggressive ways.
“We are going to have invest more time, resources, blood and treasure and we don’t want to do that.”
Shannon said the U.S. has successfully engaged in “assist and advise” operations in other parts of the world that have produced sustainable outcomes. He pointed to Central America in the 1980s and ’90s.
“It’s all about institution building,” he said. “At the end of the day, a lot of this has to be organic. We can’t want it more than our partners want it.”
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