The Reality of Afghanistan
The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest. It is time now to face reality.
For 18 years, the best military leaders of our time have tried to get Afghanistan right. Together with our NATO allies, American forces have served with honor and distinction. We have heard over and over again throughout that time, that the next six months of the war were critical.
The war in Afghanistan long ago took the form of a conflict cut into six-month increments, punctuated over its 18 years with various increases and decreases in tactical forces that were too small to "win" in Afghanistan, but large enough to push the country out of equilibrium.
When President Donald Trump ran for office, he criticized the view that U.S. deployments should be linked to arbitrary timelines. Instead, he reasoned, the length of a deployment should be tied to the achievement of tactical, operational and strategic milestones.
Regrettably, more than two years later, little has changed. Why it hasn’t changed becomes a bit clearer when you fly from Islamabad to Kabul or Bagram. The enormity of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, a space that is loosely governed in parts and not governed at all in others, unfolds before your eyes.
The Taliban remain a potent insurgent force capable of projecting power across this land, bogging down an Afghan army that is already stretched thin. Afghanistan just overtook Syria as the most violent country on the planet -- one more illustration of the failure of our current approach.
Afghanistan at the moment is a deeply fractured and divided society. The Afghan government is simply too weak, corrupt, and internally divided to extend its writ over the entire country. Afghan security forces are bloodied and beleaguered and don’t possess the independent capacity, manpower, resources, or enablers to defeat insurgency. And as long as the Taliban continue to enjoy a haven across the Durand Line in next-door Pakistan, Kabul will not have a monopoly on violence. Whether we like it or not, the Taliban are an integral part of Afghan society that Washington can’t wish away.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad fully understands this. Unfortunately, despite intense negotiations over the last eight months, it is highly questionable whether the Taliban need or even want a negotiated settlement. The group holds as much territory as it ever has and continues to profit from an opium trade that shows no signs of being addressed.
The justification for maintaining significant forces in Afghanistan today generally boils down to the idea that the United States must avoid showing lack of resolve during negotiations. This is a reasonable view, but it is also tied to the belief that a negotiated settlement will be honored by the signatories. It will not be.
In addition, some continue to believe that we need to preserve a large force in Afghanistan to ensure that the work of those we lost was not in vain. This is also an understandable argument, one stoked by patriotism and a deep respect for our men and women in uniform. However, it is also a belief which will lead to an indefinite war and to another generation of Gold Star families. Those of us who have lived through the experience do not wish to repeat it.
The need to safeguard our interests in the region is without dispute, and Central Command undoubtedly has stacks of studies that outline the special operations, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and training assets required to do just that.
This American military footprint will remain in Afghanistan for years, but the present force of 14,000 conventional soldiers, trainers, and advisers should be reduced now. It should be pared to a level consistent with America’s core counterterrorism objective in Afghanistan: ensuring transnational terrorist groups are unable to use the country to launch an attack on the American people. This will allow the country to reach equilibrium, even as we focus on our most fundamental national interest -- protection of the homeland.
Admittedly, this approach would likely result in incremental territorial loss until Afghan security forces are able to fill the vacuum associated with departing Americans. So be it. That is the nature of equilibrium. The correct measure of merit here is not found in territory occupied or population controlled, it is found in the ability of American special operations forces, and other government agencies like the CIA, to operate with sufficient freedom throughout Afghanistan to ensure threats to America are identified and countered. Other objectives are noble, but it is time to leave them to the Afghan military and the Afghan people.
When Americans were attacked on 9/11, we defended ourselves as we always have, with the honor, service, and sacrifice of our best and brightest. We need to allow Afghanistan to settle where it will, with the caveat that never again will we permit a threat from Afghanistan to require a similar sacrifice.
Brig. Gen. (ret) Daniel P. Woodward served as Director of Regional Affairs, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs and is now a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.