Afghanistan: A Difficult Year Ahead

Gale Mattox

Senior Fellow; Director, Foreign & Security Policy Program

Dr. Gale A. Mattox is Director of the Foreign & Security Policy Program at AICGS and a Professor in the Political Science Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. She is a former elected department chair and chair of chairs, and was awarded the Distinguished Fulbright-Dow Research Chair at the Roosevelt Center in the Netherlands 2009, Fulbright Scholar for NATO Strategic Studies in Brussels in Summer 2017, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Fellow in 2016-17. Dr. Mattox served on the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, was a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at the State Department Office of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Policy, and an International Affairs Analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

She has been a Bosch Fellow in Germany (also Founding President of the Bosch Alumni Association), NATO Research Fellow, and a Fulbright PhD Scholar. Dr. Mattox has held the offices of President (1996-2003) and Vice President of Women in International Security (WIIS); Adjunct Professor, Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University; and served as Vice President of the International Studies Association and co-chair of the ISA Women’s Caucus.

She has served on numerous boards, including the Tactical Advisory Council, Center for Naval Analysis, and the George Marshall Center Advisory Board in Germany; the advisory boards of St. Mary’s College Women’s Center, the Forum for Security Studies at the Swedish National Defense University, and WIIS. Dr. Mattox published Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance with S. Grenier, Enlarging NATO: The National Debates with A. Rachwald, and Evolving European Defense Policies with C. Kelleher. She is the co-editor of Germany in Transition, Germany at the Crossroads, and Germany Through American Eyes, and has published widely in scholarly journals. She holds numerous awards and has appeared on the Lehrer News Hour and other media outlets. She holds a PhD from the University of Virginia.

Afghanistan will confront and challenge Germany in the coming year. It will require close collaboration between the United States and Germany as well as the coalition allies, as the ability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to secure the country against the return of the Taliban promises to be an uphill battle. With the stakes high, the ability to succeed in their efforts to stabilize Afghanistan is unfortunately far from assured. As deputy command of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the need for Germany to work in tandem with the United States has never been as important.

The fight this past fall over Kunduz may have been only the beginning of the difficulties facing the Resolute Support Mission over the coming year. The ability of the Taliban to overrun the city of Kunduz surprised many and threatened the first year in the post-2014 era, originally planned as a time to pull back from active combat after 13/14 years of the longest war in U.S. history. According to plan, Resolute Support was to have marked a transition to handing over defense of the country to the Afghans themselves. Located in northern Afghanistan, Kunduz has several meanings for the Germans. The area falls within the former Regional Command – North commanded by Germany under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) prior to the current transitional Resolute Support. Relatively quiet during most of this earlier phase, Kunduz took on symbolic meaning for Germany in 2009 when U.S. airstrikes called in by the Germans against two fuel trucks driven by the Taliban inadvertently killed Afghan villagers attracted to the possibility of free fuel. The incident shook a German public considering the Afghan participation to be one of nation-building, not active conflict. The incident altered the public view of the Bundeswehr deployments to Afghanistan.

Whether last fall’s retaking of Kunduz is even secured remains debated, but the implications for the coming year portend a much more active participation than envisioned for the planned “training, advise, and assistance for the Afghan security forces and institutions.”[1]  The Congressional testimony this past week as U.S. General John F. Campbell turns over command to General John W. Nicolson, Jr. demonstrated the rethinking of our policy in Afghanistan at the highest levels.

There are several issues that will confront the United States and Germany to assure the security of Afghanistan and avoid the return of the Taliban, not to mention the increasing presence of al-Qaeda and even ISIS.  One, thwarting the Taliban and growth of ISIS will require greater commitment from a broader alliance. Not only should Germany and the United States be continually reassessing their commitment—and Germany has recently done so, accompanied by an increase in its deployment, and the U.S. administration is expected to be close to a decision not to halve its force of 9,800, as has been the U.S. plan—their force numbers should increase. And the expectations for the fourteen partner countries in Resolute Support should also increase.

Second and more broadly, the need to return to Iraq and Syria to confront ISIS should have made clear that the terrorist fight is long from over and the extended threat, as the Paris attacks only months ago demonstrated, will not be a quick affair—the terrorist threat has stretched into our domestic societies. To halt the terrorist-heightened challenge will need a concerted effort beyond the current 14 partners to include to an even greater extent the wider Resolute Support network of 28 committed countries as well as others.

Third, funding for the efforts in Afghanistan cannot be shortchanged, either in support of forces working on the ground with the Afghans or in support for projects that will contribute to the general stability for the country.  By some estimates, Afghan refugees are second only to the mass exodus of families and children from Syria, particularly into Germany. Only a stable Afghanistan will avoid a refugee flow of crisis proportions out of the country. Active trainers deployed with Afghan troops will require a significantly greater funding commitment to extend and deepen troops on the ground.[2]

Fourth, the recommendation of General John F. Campbell that RSM support advisers closer to Afghan units on the front lines would provide better training and a more visible sign of commitment. While longer term, the recommended Afghan air force would be a logical enhancement for the country’s ability to counter the insurgents.  Finally, recommendations for European assistance in providing materials such as drones and intelligence assets as well as additional forces should go without saying. A larger commitment in terms of trainers and assets helpful to countering the insurgents can only speed the process of enhancing the stability of Afghanistan and the reason.

Being “hasty in its withdrawal,” as German defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen commented, threatens to mirror the challenges now confronting the coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Resolute Support Mission offers a needed transition period for the Afghan National Defense and Security Force and not a cover for withdrawal at this time.


[1] UN Security Council Resolution 2189 issued 12 December 2014 called for international support for Afghanistan and its stability and an agreement among NATO Foreign Ministers and partners to sustain a mission for 2016.  This followed a Status Of Forces Agreement with the Afghan government signed 3 September 2014, with the then newly elected President of Afghanistan Ghani, ratified by the Afghan Parliament in November.

[2] The Afghanistan National Army Trust Fund (ANA) provides for activities into the future for the army and now totals over $1 billion.

For a discussion of “Germany: The Legacy of the War in Afghanistan,” see Chapter 7 by Gale A. Mattox, in Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: the Politics of Alliance, ed. Mattox and Stephen M. Grenier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.