The fact that President Barack Obama authorized a drone strike Saturday that U.S. officials say killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour
underlines a number of important developments in Afghanistan.
First, the on-and-off peace discussions that the Afghan government has had with the Taliban for years -- discussions that have been actively supported by the United States -- have yielded nothing of substance and are quite unlikely to do so anytime soon.
Second, the U.S. drone strike is emblematic of the fact that the Taliban are coming back in Afghanistan. The group controls or has a significant presence in around a third of the districts
across the country, holding more territory than at any time since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban government in the months following the 9/11 attacks.
Third, one of the first significant national security decisions that the new U.S. president will have to make after assuming office on January 20, will be what to do about American forces in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been drawing down those forces for years and had aimed for complete withdrawal by the time it left office but temporarily halted that drawdown in October because of the resurgent Taliban. There are 9,800 troops in Afghanistan today.
In addition, both ISIS and al Qaeda have established significant presences in Afghanistan in the past year or so. U.S. officials estimate
there are up to 300 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and between 1,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters
The next president will have to decide whether to continue the Obama plan for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan or adopt a different course. This decision will surely be influenced by what played out in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011 and the stunning military victories of ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
The drone strike aimed at Mullah Mansour took place in a remote area of southwestern Pakistan, which is a useful reminder that the so-called Afghan Taliban continues to be headquartered not in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan.
Until last year, the Haqqani Network
was a somewhat distinct arm of the Taliban. In 2015 Siraj Haqqani was appointed the deputy leader of the Taliban. The Haqqani Network has played the key role in the multiple suicide attacks that have plagued Kabul in recent years. Mullah Mansour's death will surely strengthen
Siraj Haqqani's growing role in the Taliban and may further radicalize the group.
As a result of all of these developments, the next president should announce a new policy in which a robust U.S. noncombat military force remains in Afghanistan for many years. That force would help the Afghan military with intelligence, training and logistics.
A key flaw of the Obama administration's approach to Afghanistan has been constantly announcing proposed withdrawal dates for U.S. forces, which has enabled the Taliban to believe they can simply wait out the clock. It also has contributed to a lack of confidence among the Afghan population, eight out of 10 of whom say that the Afghan army and police need support from countries such as the United States if they are to do their jobs properly, according to polling last year by the Asia Foundation.
Let's see if either the Clinton or Trump campaigns have anything to say about this important issue in coming days. After all, the 9/11 attacks were organized and directed by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan. It is very much in America's national security interests to ensure that the Taliban do not dominate Afghanistan and that neither ISIS nor al Qaeda continues their growth in the country.