Home inSight The U.S. War in Afghanistan: First a Strategic Objective, Then the Troops

The U.S. War in Afghanistan: First a Strategic Objective, Then the Troops

Eric Rozenman
A U.S. medic with the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, secures a landing zone for a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in Spera, Afghanistan, on Nov. 16, 2009. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

On August 21, after months of review by his national security advisors, President Donald Trump announced his strategic objectives for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. These include “an honorable and enduring outcome” worthy of the sacrifice in blood and treasure America already has made, avoiding the “predictable and unacceptable” consequences of a rapid exit, and dealing with the “immense” regional security threats, among them the “20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations” active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The president said he had “already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented” the Pentagon and field commanders “from fully and swiftly” battling the enemy.

But Trump did not specify how many troops the United States would commit to the Afghan war.

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan 16 years ago and, with its allies, quickly ousted the country’s Taliban rulers. They had sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon, and outside Shanksville, Pa.

By 2010, after a short-term “surge” of 33,000 troops, U.S. forces in Afghanistan had reached a peak of more than 100,000. With Afghan government soldiers and police and personnel of coalition countries, the United States was fighting a resurgent Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements.

In 2014, President Barack Obama said the United States was “finishing the job” in Afghanistan. He had hoped to leave only 5,500 American troops in support roles by the end of his administration two years later. A worried Pentagon convinced him the bare minimum was closer to 10,000.

In February, 2017 the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, asserted that he did not have enough to help Kabul counter the Taliban and defeat Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other jihadists as well. Gen. Nicholson assured senators he could be successful in Afghanistan with fewer than 50,000 GIs. When pressed, he said with fewer than 30,000.

In July, President Trump reportedly “complained bitterly about the course of the war and even suggested replacing” Gen. Nicholson. But he dropped the alternative of withdrawing the remaining 8,400 U.S. forces. The Defense Department was said to be considering another 3,000 to 5,000 GIs to help stabilize Afghan troops. In addition, another 5,000-plus coalition forces from Germany, Italy and other allied countries also help train, advise and aid the military of President Ashraf Ghani.

Meanwhile, the Taliban and other insurgents continued “aggressive attacks across the country.” According to some, the Taliban controls or is present in more Afghan territory than any other time since its ouster in 2001.

The cost

Criticized by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a June 12 hearing for lack of a strategy, Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now.” He promised, “we will correct this as soon as possible.”

Afghanistan has taken more than 2,400 American lives and, according to one estimate cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cost $770 billion in direct expenses through fiscal 2017. It has become the United States’ longest war, perhaps in part because questions of troop levels often overshadowed decisions about strategy, about the enemy and the threat.

By 2009, the United States already was eight years into the Afghan War, twice as long as its involvement in World War II or the Civil War. That summer, before Obama’s surge, the presiding colonel asked a U.S. Army War College strategic implementation seminar break-out group—in which this writer participated—a question: “How many troops do we need in Afghanistan?” At the time fewer than 40,000 GIs were deployed.

The question was not “Do we need U.S. forces in Afghanistan?” Nor was it  “What for?” Instead, the 15 majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels working toward masters’ degrees and four invited civilians in our group, which was one of a score in the overall seminar, made troop level projections. They ranged from none to 250,000.

Some officers, including those who’d already served in Iraq or Afghanistan, wanted few if any Americans committed. To hell with nation building in a clan- and ethnically-divided, poorly educated, patriarchic, religiously medieval country, they said. Keep an “over-the-horizon” presence. When bad guys threatened us, drop in and kill them.

“Over-the-horizon” wouldn’t work without a widespread on-the-ground intelligence network, others argued. And that required a deployment big enough to pacify key parts of the country.

The quarter-of-a-million troop projection was mine. “Why so many?” the colonel in charge asked. Acknowledging a lack of military expertise, I ventured a comparison:

In 1991’s Desert Storm, the United States led a coalition with roughly 500,000 American soldiers and several hundred thousand more from participating countries in the quick liberation of Kuwait and destruction of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s military. This was the “Powell Doctrine” in action—the course advocated by then Chief of Staff Gen. Colin Powell (later secretary of state), based on lessons learned as a young officer in Vietnam: Avoid gradual escalation, prolonged warfare and resultant unnecessary casualties. By all means, use disproportionately large force and quickly.

Our subsequent “light footprint” strikes in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 overturned enemy regimes but proved insufficient to pacify the countries or defeat hostile ideologies based there. Unlike post-World War II occupation forces in Japan and Germany, in place after unconditional surrenders, our efforts in Kabul and Baghdad seemed simultaneously too ambitious and, for all the thousands of lives lost and billions spent, too small.

Bad neighbors

Two years later a participant in that War College breakout session returned after deployment in Afghanistan. For nearly 12 months he had led a coalition Provincial Reconstruction Team working out of a forward operating base. PRT’s fought the Taliban and others, mediated disputes and helped build local infrastructure.

He said we didn’t have enough troops to sustain such efforts, let alone triumph. Six years later the U.S. military, having contracted since the Bush administration, continues to be strained by repeated deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, delayed weapons acquisitions, rising medical costs and so on.How many troops did we need in Afghanistan? More than we first sent.

Why? Because the fighting is not only about Afghanistan and preventing it from relapsing into a base for anti-American jihadists. Russia, Iran and Pakistan are all involved, none with Washington’s interest in “reconciling” the numerous Afghan factions. Gen. Nicholson, who has described the situation as a “stalemate,” said earlier in 2017 that Russia appears to be arming the Taliban, which controls or contests a third or more of the country.

As President Trump noted, Pakistan long has provided a refuge for Taliban fighters, allowing them when harried to cross the border in search of safety. Islamabad, which the United States provides with billions of dollars’ worth of aid, has little interest in a strong, united Afghanistan.

Islamic Revolutionary Iran, which has armed anti-American insurgents in Iraq, has campaigned since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 to weaken if not eliminate U.S. influence in the greater Middle East. The Shi’ite theocracy “was once militarily opposed to the Sunni extremist Taliban, but it is now believed to be backing the group as a lesser evil and an antidote to the Islamic State, a more brutal and expansionist militia.”

Stiffening the Afghan government so it can successfully negotiate with the Taliban, an approach advocated by many in Washington, seems the least the United States must do. But defeating the ideology of those who attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 by defeating those who fight in its name, and reestablishing deterrence against those who support them, ought to be the U.S. objective.

The president said America in Afghanistan aims not at nation-building but killing terrorists. “… America and our partners are committed to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology.”

Afghanistan alone is not important to American national interests. By itself, it would not warrant the deployment of many, if any, GIs and the allocation of millions, let alone hundreds of billions of dollars.

But Afghanistan is not by itself. Russia, Iran and Pakistan stir the pot. China watches. The Islamic State may be approaching its end, al-Qaeda is significantly degraded. Yet the anti-Western, anti-American ideologies fueling Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic extremism have transformed themselves before and can find new host groups, new countries and ungoverned spaces of refugee.

American policy with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and anywhere else in the greater Middle East where U.S. forces fight Islamists should be to inflict undeniable defeats on them, thereby increasing our deterrence and decreasing their enthusiasm and that of potential supporters. The president did not specify but the evil ideology motivating the 20 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and others like them elsewhere—is “Islamism,” an intolerant, expansionist politico-religious variant of Islam.

This is a peculiar hot and cold war, one that has lasted many years but is not near its end; has ranged in shifting patterns over countries and continents. A strategy that can defeat hostile forces in battle while delegitimizing them among their own people will tell U.S. policy makers how many troops are needed in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the region.

Vietnam demonstrated that the American public would not endlessly support ill-defined and inconclusive wars. Afghanistan was allowed to become such a war. In addition to determining how many troops are necessary, policy makers will have to do what has not been done, certainly not in any consistent manner, since Sept. 11, 2001—explain to the American people who they are fighting, what motivates the enemy and why it must be beaten.

For President Trump’s August 21 speech on Afghanistan to mark a successful turning point, the multifaceted enemy must be consistently identified, targeted and defeated.