After 15 Years, Weighing the Options in Afghanistan

1200px-Black_Hawk_flying_over_a_valley_in_Bamyan

(DoD/Wikimedia Commons Photo)

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.

The Cost of Forgetting US Military Failures

090219-A-6797M-101        U.S. Army 1st Lt. Larry Baca from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment monitors the weather as a storm moves in outside of Forward Operating Base Lane, Afghanistan, on Feb. 19, 2009.  DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.  (Released)

DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.

The Atlantic put out a good piece titled Forgetting Afghanistan a few days ago about how the US government and public seem to be consciously forgetting Afghanistan as our attention shifts back to Iraq and IS. It seems that it is not solely a shift in focus, but a deliberate attempt to remove the failure of the war in Afghanistan from society’s collective thought in an attempt to relieve the guilt and shame that may be associated with the military (and diplomatic) defeat there.

The article points out that this concept is not new. After the Franco’s death in Spain, the Spanish government decided the best way to move forward was to commit to la desmemoria—the disremembering—choosing not to remember its authoritarian past in order to transition to democracy.

But this is not even the first time the US has chosen to disremember a military failure. The article also mentions that after the Vietnam War the US Army Special Warfare School threw out its files on counter-insurgency.

Perhaps I am naive, but this shocks me. I think it is well established that the US Army is not a learning institution. But to destroy records in an attempt to get out of the business of counter-insurgency is a level of infantilism from the Army that I was not prepared to accept. Once again, the US finds itself distancing itself from COIN as it deploys more tanks to Europe and refuses to send anyone but inside-the-wire advisors to Iraq.

Obviously, forgetting our COIN lessons in Vietnam did not prepare us for success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who knows what those records contained, but the US Army should be training for any mission it is called to undertake, not just the ones it wants. As long as civilians control the government, the military is going to have to do things it would rather not do. As the United States has not won a war in over twenty years, and since World War II has lost more wars than it has won, it is probably time the DoD becomes a learning organization.

Even though the US may be purposely forgetting Afghanistan, for the moment it seems that the administration is doing its best not to disremember some of the lessons from Iraq and that is encouraging. While the main goal might only be to limit US troop casualties and prevent the nation from being bogged down again in an unwinnable situation in Iraq, at the very least we are looking at our failures from the last ten years or so and saying, “let’s not do that again.” It’s clear that Obama is doing the bare minimum there until his presidency is over. As the president who was elected to end wars, he does not want to leave another one for his successor.

The United States is currently limiting its engagement overseas for political reasons, but this cannot last forever. As the political climate changes, the DoD must prepare for the next unfavorable mission—even if that means COIN or whatever we will be calling it in 2025. Clausewitz wrote:

We must therefore familiarize ourselves with the thought of an honorable defeat. We must always nourish this thought within ourselves, and we must get completely used to it. Be convinced, Most Gracious Master, that without this firm resolution no great results can be achieved in the most successful war, let alone in the most unsuccessful.

Without honorably accepting our defeat and learning from it we will never truly win again.