Yesterday, Anders Corr wrote an opinion piece for Forbes comparing three realistic policy options in Afghanistan: maintain the 13,000 coalition troops indefinitely, increase troops slightly and intensify the air campaign, or withdraw all troops completely.
The current policy of maintaining a limited troop presence does have its benefits of training the Afghan police and military, providing the Afghan National Army with air support, and having some quick reaction force elements in place in case the Taliban’s fabled overwhelming spring offensive finally takes place. Yet it also puts troops at risk, certainly is not free, and does not seem to be making Afghanistan any safer.
As Afghans slowly lose village after village to the Taliban and the security situation in Kabul deteriorates, a natural solution is to do more: increase troops and bomb more things. This seems to be the reaction the current administration is reluctantly leaning into with the recent deployment of an infantry battalion to Helmand — the first major deployment of combat troops back to Afghanistan since the end of the NATO mission in 2014 — and an increase in operations against Islamic State in the east.
But, as I have written about before, airstrikes without significant and reliable ground forces can do more harm than good. And as Corr’s piece rightly points out:
“If we didn’t win with 140,000 NATO troops, we are unlikely to win with an increase of ten or twenty thousand.”
Thus, if the current troop levels are not working, and increasing troop levels will not work, is it time for the United States to cut its losses and leave? If our war against the Taliban is failing after 15 years and at least $685 billion spent, it is time to stop fighting the Taliban. Corr quotes me in his piece:
“Richard White, a security specialist in Afghanistan, messaged me on the subject. ‘The Taliban insurgency will … only be defeated if it is legitimized into the political system as perhaps Hizbullah and Hamas were.’ White continued, ‘Maybe that can happen without a U.S. military presence, maybe not. I am positive that we cannot continue to invest in Afghanistan with little to no return indefinitely, though.’”
Interestingly, a 2008 Rand study found after an examination of 648 terrorist groups that the most common way terrorist groups end is by transition to the political process. The US government seems to at least partly understand this and is once again attempting direct peace talks with the Taliban. Terrorism and insurgency are not identical, however, and the study noted that terrorist groups most likely to enter the political sphere were those with narrow objectives.
Perhaps a complete withdrawal makes the most logical sense at this point, but without the American public demanding it, I doubt the US government will willingly leave on its own — after all, it is not their money they are spending. More Americans than ever now consider the Afghanistan war a mistake, but still only a little less than half. And as a prominent Middle East scholar once told me after I submitted a piece on Afghanistan to his blog in the hopes of being reposted:
“I can’t explain it, but the public just usually does not respond to Afghanistan stories.”
As long as Americans continue to not care and the Afghan government continues to request assistance, it is unlikely the US is going anywhere.