By John Isaacs and Usha Sahay
Executive Summary: As the United States and NATO contemplate the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, officially scheduled for December 2014, a number of commentators have argued in favor of slowing down the withdrawal of the 68,000 remaining U.S. troops. Such arguments maintain that the majority of troops should remain in Afghanistan through 2013 or later, to complete the training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This training mission has become the cornerstone of NATO’s effort to secure Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgency and ensure the country’s stability after 2014.
But this “stay-the-course” logic is deeply flawed, because it relies on the false premise that the training of the ANSF is going successfully, and can be completed in two more years. In fact, however, the success of the training mission has been greatly exaggerated. Even after a major troop surge, only a small percentage of Afghan battalions are able to operate independently, and joint NATO-Afghan efforts have not made lasting gains against the Taliban insurgency. These troubling examples highlight the impossibility of the U.S. mission, and the futility of leaving troops in combat for two more years.
The training mission increasingly appears fruitless, and it is clear that the United States’ main long-term strategic interest in Afghanistan has more to do with counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. There is no compelling reason to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan for the next two years. With the cost in dollars and lives far outweighing the marginal, transient gains that have been made, it is time to end America’s longest war.
Introduction: Should We Stay or Should We Go?
The latest round of debate in Congress over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) brought an historic victory for those seeking to wind down America’s longest war: the Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urging the president to accelerate the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. The amendment is nonbinding, but expresses the “sense of Congress” that combat operations should end “at the earliest date consistent with a safe and orderly draw down of United States troops in Afghanistan.”
In May, the House of Representatives adopted an opposite recommendation to its version of the NDAA, calling for more than 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2014 and substantial troop levels after that. (The final House-Senate agreement on the bill took a position closer to the Senate’s). The two sides of Capitol Hill, then, staked out conflicting positions on the tough question of the Afghanistan war: should substantial numbers of U.S. troops stay longer, or is it time to accelerate bringing the troops home?
Let’s take a closer look at the argument for “staying the course.” Many commentators who support the 2014 withdrawal maintain that the withdrawal should be “back-loaded” – that is, that the bulk of the 68,000 troops should be kept in Afghanistan until at least late 2013. These voices suggest that NATO forces need this extra time to train and mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA), in particular the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Proponents of this viewpoint include former Afghanistan ambassador Ronald Neumann, NATO official Simon Gass, Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon, former Pentagon official Joseph Collins, the American Enterprise Institute’s Ahmad K. Majidyar, and the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey.
The buildup of the ANSF — a lengthy and difficult undertaking described by one journalist as an “enormous gamble” – has become the “foundation of our current strategy” for defeating the Taliban insurgency and stabilizing the country post-2014. Those who caution against a premature drawdown of troops believe that training the ANSF is key to a peaceful Afghanistan that can govern itself. According to this argument, recent ANSF successes show that NATO’s mission to put the Afghan forces in the lead is going well, and an early exit at this crucial time risks undermining those gains.
If we were sure that US and NATO forces could have the Afghan army trained by the end of 2014, it might make more sense to argue against an accelerated withdrawal – because that would mean that there was a concrete reason for US troops to be fighting in Afghanistan, and a specific scenario for ending the conflict. But when it comes to the ANSF training mission – increasingly the focus of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy – we have neither of those. Here’s why.
Twenty-Four Kandaks, and One Fool’s Errand?
First, training the ANSF isn’t going as well as you might think. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (who generally advocates a longer and larger presence in Afghanistan) told the House Armed Services Committee in June 2012 that reports of operations led by ANSF officers are exaggerated: “I have found…that the definition of ‘ANSF-led’ is notoriously elastic and can vary widely from one Area of Operations to another. In some cases it means that the ANA planned and executed an operation entirely on its own; in other cases it means that the American unit planned and executed the operation and stuck an Afghan officer in the lead MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle] as they went out to the gate.”
There are other reasons to be worried as well. Afghanistan optimists tend to make their case using anecdotal success stories about particular units, such as here and here.
But consider the bigger picture: according to the latest Department of Defense report, the Afghan army consists of 169 kandaks, or battalions. In September 2011, only one kandak (out of what was then a total of 156) had achieved the top rating of “independent with advisors.” In April 2012, 13 of 156 had achieved this rating, and as of December 2012, the number was up to 24 out of 169 (the DoD gave the number as 30, but due to changes in the way units are counted, the relevant figure is 24).
The Pentagon consistently trots out these numbers as an example of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) success. But this rate of progress is too slow to instill confidence that the gigantic training mission can be wrapped up in merely two years. 24 kandaks comprise less than a fifth of the total, and it took years to get to this point – hardly a reason for optimism. And what’s more, the December DoD report reveals a sharp increase in the number of kandaks that are “Not Assessed” because of a lack of information.
Gary Owen (a pseudonym for an Afghanistan war veteran who now works in Kabul on development issues in addition to blogging about the conflict) has pointed out that in 2011, ISAF literally rewrote the definition of what a prepared kandak should look like, because the training mission wasn’t going well enough. Officials changed the highest preparedness rank from “independent” to “independent with advisors,” because the original standard was “too restrictive and would be difficult for any ANSF element to attain.” This troubling manipulation of the numbers to make NATO efforts look more successful means that even positive statistics about Afghan readiness should be taken with a grain of salt.
We should be skeptical of the idea of staying in Afghanistan in order to complete a training mission that is clearly going badly, and may even be impossible. Interestingly, Max Boot’s critique of ANSF preparedness was actually intended to be an argument for remaining in Afghanistan as long as possible. Boot believes that overly optimistic statements about the ANSF’s progress are little more than “happy talk” to “appease” advocates of an early withdrawal.
But this logic is distorted: if we have not succeeded so far, why does that mean we should stay longer and continue a failed strategy? Why should we not instead reevaluate whether it is, indeed, plausible to build a foreign army in Afghanistan? Indeed, a close look at what ISAF is up against suggests that training the Afghan army isn’t just a matter of having enough troops and time – it may simply be a fool’s errand.
The ANSF buildup is dogged by structural problems like poor literacy rates, high rates of desertion, inherent cultural and political divisions, and a “trust deficit” between coalition and Afghan forces, which was thrown into sharp relief during a slew of insider attacks in late summer 2012.
To be sure, the progress we have made thus far is real progress. But the changes have been incremental, not the decisive, qualitative shift that would be needed to vindicate the ‘stay the course’ argument and justify a commitment to two more years in Afghanistan.
But Will It Last?
Even if we could create an independent and fully capable Afghan army, would its gains endure? This problem has plagued the mission in Afghanistan, especially after the 2010 troop surge: short-term military victories make great PR, but don’t translate into success if they can’t be sustained. ISAF and ANSF forces are fighting an insurgency, which has the unique ability to bounce back from defeats or crop up in other, more vulnerable parts of the country. Moreover, the Taliban have historically been able to take advantage of their safe haven across the border in Pakistan, to regroup even after decisive battlefield defeats.
The problem may have been put best by the Department of Defense itself in its December 2012 situation report: “Despite the tactical progress of ANSF-ISAF joint operations, the insurgency remains adaptable with a regenerative capacity.” Translation: no matter how well we arm and train Afghan forces, their ability to defeat an insurgency is inherently limited.
Indeed, time and again, insurgents have been cleared from areas in Afghanistan, only to return later. Owen uses the example of Trek Nawa, a small district in Helmand province, to make this point: “Trek Nawa has been “cleared” of Taliban activity at least three times since 2010. That’s right: in the heart of Helmand, where we’re “winning,” US Marines have been sent at least three different times to clear an area the size of a small Texas county.” A recent New York Times article that expressed sunny optimism about the success of the surge even had to finish with a caveat: while the gains “can bring stability in the short term,” there is no guarantee that they’ll be sustained after 2014.
That military gains in Afghanistan have been so transient explains the spectacular overall failure of President Obama’s surge. By nearly every metric, conditions are worse now than they were before the injection of over 30,000 additional troops. The reason, as Jonathan Rue has written in the Guardian, is that those troops did help to achieve “tangible goals at a tactical level,” but “those gains had little strategic effect and thus did not translate into political success.” Indeed, the town of Marjah, where NATO conducted a major and reportedly successful offensive in 2010, remains more violent than ever.
The lesson of the surge is that the battlefield prowess of the United States military – or, for that matter, the ANSF – cannot solve Afghanistan’s problems, which are fundamentally political in nature. A political problem cannot have a military solution, which calls into question the need for US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan to train local military forces.
A Case for More War?
Here’s another problem, a classic one for armies fighting land wars on foreign soil: if you decide to stay longer, how – and when – do you leave? From a logistical standpoint, it’s difficult to argue that we should keep most of the 68,000 troops there until “well into 2013,” as Boot has suggested, without extending the December 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops. Boot and others who advocate this position know all too well that ending a foreign war is a tricky and expensive business.
It is doubtful that any proponents of staying the course would argue that 68,000 troops can or should be withdrawn in a year. So those arguing for hanging on through 2013 and then getting out probably aren’t terribly serious about the “getting out” part. Indeed, Boot told Congress in his June testimony that “unless there is a substantial improvement in the situation on the ground between now and the end of 2014, I would recommend that we keep those force levels at about 68,000.”
Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times‘ opinion editor, offered one example of how slowing the withdrawal now might lead us to drag our feet later on: if we maintain a bulky force in Afghanistan through 2013, Rosenthal notes, we may be “tempted to hang around in 2014 to provide security for Afghanistan’s next presidential election – at best a thankless task.” The longer we stay, the more liable we are to become bogged down in an extended mission further down the line. So while slowing or freezing the drawdown might sound like a happy medium between “cut and run” and “endless war,” in reality, come 2014, getting out won’t be as easy as it seems.
Conclusion: Moving On to a New Mission?
As the conflict drags on, it’s become increasingly clear that the United States is actually fighting two wars in Afghanistan – and it’s also clear which one it’s more committed to. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman formulated it, keeping Afghanistan internally stable is tangential to the United States’ main interest, which is maintaining a base for a counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan. That is Afghanistan’s strategic value. Fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan is increasingly becoming severed from the related but distinct mission of fighting the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
For a telling example of how the strategy has shifted, consider a pair of opposing op-eds in the Washington Post, in which authors from opposite sides of the political spectrum debated the size of the post-2014 force. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan of the conservative Institute for the Study of War argued for at least 30,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014, while David Barno and Matthew Irvine of the more progressive Center for a New American Security suggested 10,000 troops or fewer. The different figures are somewhat predictable given the authors’ political bents, but what is notable is that both articles laid out a nearly identical mission: counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, and basically nothing else. Little mention was made of assisting the Afghan army, pursuing economic development, enhancing the status of women or other projects of “nation-building.” After years of fighting a war with an often confused and contradictory purpose, it seems that the left and the right can finally agree on the mission.
Now, of course, both op-eds were addressing the US mission post-2014, and it’s been known for some time now that the mission after 2014 would shift to counterterrorism. Still, though, it’s illuminating to see that policymakers finally seem to be clear about the United States’ strategic interests in Afghanistan, clarity that has long eluded us.
Which brings us back to the major question: if we plan to concentrate on conducting operations in Pakistan, why wait until 2014 to make that transition? It is the date that the Obama administration announced. But as we’ve seen, that date isn’t likely to bring about any magical changes in terms of Afghan force preparedness.
Rather, we can expect to see only the same incremental and unsatisfying progress that we’ve been seeing in fits and starts for years. This isn’t a sign that we need more troops and more time – it’s evidence that there is no military panacea for the problems that plague Afghanistan, and that isn’t likely to change in the next two years. Given this, the United States doesn’t have a compelling strategic reason to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan.
Fundamentally, this is why “stay the course” is the wrong course. Whatever we might accomplish in the next two years might be marginally helpful, but if we can’t complete the mission, then those marginal gains are no longer worth the cost in dollars and lives. Our longest war has dragged on fruitlessly and slowly, and we owe it to ourselves – and to Afghanistan – to end it quickly.