In the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, security for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden increased dramatically. Over 20,000 National Guardsmen are expected for the event. That’s more than twice as many troops as are deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So, it takes this many troops to protect Washington, D.C., which measures about 61 square miles with a population of over 700,000. Afghanistan covers some 250,000 square miles, with a population of more than 36 million. Why then do so many policymakers and pundits continue to insist that a small contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will make a difference in quelling the violence in that country? It is obvious that that it won’t, and keeping troops in Afghanistan is unnecessary for U.S. national security.
The mission in Afghanistan was effectively accomplished in less than a year. Al Qaeda’s leadership was decimated or scattered into hiding, and the Taliban regime was dethroned for harboring Osama bin Laden and his followers. Instead of declaring success, the mission morphed into nation-building and counterinsurgency.
Those opposed to withdrawal from Afghanistan continue to refuse the reality that existed from the very beginning: We could never win, i.e., achieve military victory.
On one hand, counterinsurgency requires a military component. The history of successful counterinsurgency – largely practiced by the British – requires 20 troops per 1,000 civilians. The force requirement for Afghanistan would be 720,000 troops – certainly a bridge too far. The United States stopped tracking how much of Afghanistan was under government or insurgent control in 2019, but according to the last estimate, about 37% of the population, some 13 million people, was not under government control. That would require 260,000 troops – more than twice the largest deployment during 2010-2011.
But troop levels are not all that matters. Successful counterinsurgency often requires the use of harsh and indiscriminate military force. Again, the British offer good examples, such as putting down the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. While such action may kill the enemy, it also all too often results in killing innocent civilians. In January, a U.S. drone strike in Herat targeting and killing 16 Taliban militants also killed 10 Afghan civilians. According to the most recent United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan report, there were 5,939 civilian casualties (2,117 killed and 3,822 injured) from January to September 2020. Twenty-eight percent of those casualties were attributed to pro-government forces. The inevitable result is alienation of the civilian population, which makes them more sympathetic to expelling the foreign occupier.
The problem in Afghanistan is that foreign military occupation, while perhaps the correct tactical military solution to counter the violence, is strategically a mistake. Foreign occupation reinforces the perception that the Afghan government is being propped up and controlled by the United States, rather than being the sovereign government of a Muslim country. The result is the occupying force in Afghanistan is a magnet for jihad.
Ultimately, successful counterinsurgency requires more than just a military solution – it requires a political solution. Again, the British experience is important, because this is the lesson of the Belfast Agreement. The Irish Republican Army was not defeated, but peace was achieved via negotiation. After more than 19 years in Afghanistan and a direct cost of $978 billion — other estimates include other costs and put the price tag at $2 trillion — it is worth noting that the British Army spent 38 years in Northern Ireland. This should serve as a reality check for anyone who supports staying longer.
More important, not only can we not win in Afghanistan, but we don’t have to. The conflict in Afghanistan is not a war of U.S. national survival. The Taliban is not an existential threat to the United States. The violence in Afghanistan flows out of a longstanding civil war within the Muslim world. It is not America’s war to fight or win. Only Afghans can determine the outcome.
We must understand that a continued U.S. military presence – however well intended and however successful at the tactical, operational level – is not the solution and is actually part of the problem. It creates resentment not just within the Afghan population, but also the broader Muslim world. Residual counterterrorism operations – which should largely be operational intelligence and targeting information – can be conducted without boots on the ground. We must be true to our own principle of self-determination and allow the Afghan government to act as a truly sovereign government and make decisions for itself – even if they are not the same decisions we would make. Our only real criteria should be that the government in Afghanistan – even if it includes the Taliban – not provide support or safe haven to terrorist groups who would attack the American homeland
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than thirty years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un—War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.