IS THE U.S. COMMITMENT SUSTAINABLE? SHOULD IT BE?
“In the end, the responsibility for a successful outcome for this war will increasingly be placed on an under resourced military tasked to accomplish ambitious objectives under daunting circumstances.”
By Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb
Public support for the war in Afghanistan continues to decline as America’s longest conflict enters its 12th year. Increasing incidents between Afghan and American soldiers, an emerging “trust deficit” between Kabul and Washington, and continuing poor performance by the Afghan government and military have led many to question the rationale for continued U.S. involvement.
The United States is committed to maintaining a combat presence in Afghanistan at least until 2014 and a significant advisory force for years after that. However, the lack of support for this policy is growing and will make it difficult for the administration to continue its strategy as envisaged.
On the other hand, it would be equally challenging to assess that our goals are unachievable and, therefore, that a more rapid disengagement should be undertaken.
Most likely this means a speeded up withdrawal, attempts to reach an understanding with the Taliban and other militant factions, and continuing efforts to prop up the increasingly unpopular Karzai government. It means a shift of the focus of U.S. military efforts away from counter-insurgency (COIN) to training and advising Afghan security forces.
Developments in Afghanistan the Basis for Growing Pessimism
Over the course of the decade-long war, the United States has lost 2,700 dead, more than 18,000 wounded, and expended over $600 billion. The U.S. provided almost $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan last year alone, and has spent more than $50 billion since 2002 in training and equipping Afghan security forces. Yet the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan estimates that only about 1% of Afghan units can operate independently.
Foreign aid is propping up the Afghan economy and there is little confidence that Kabul can survive without this external assistance. The budget this year for Afghan security forces is around $12 billion—that is several times the amount of the government’s annual revenue! To continue this expenditure would require a long term financial commitment by foreign governments, and that is unlikely to happen.
Afghan citizens increasingly see the U.S. and other ISAF forces as “occupiers” in their country. The time of viewing Americans as liberators from the oppressive Taliban regime are gone. While there appears to be little support for a return of the Taliban to power, Afghans themselves seem to be equally unenthusiastic about the central government in Kabul or foreign forces.
Many believe that as the U.S. draws down, the Afghan security forces will be unable to stay together and likely not be capable of conducting major combat operations. The possibility of the country once again descending into civil war is quite strong; leaving the gates open again to a militant, well organized faction such as the Taliban to retake control—over at least parts of the country.
The number of “fratricide” incidents is growing. This does not refer to killings of officers by drafted enlisted soldiers within U.S. ranks as occurred in Viet-Nam. It means the actions taken by Afghan security forces against Americans, and conversely U.S. forces committing horrendous acts against Afghan civilian groups. Afghan soldiers, or those dressed as such, have conducted suicide attacks once inside allied bases to kill many ISAF soldiers, and such actions seem to be growing as Afghans tire of the U.S. presence. No one knows what drove Sgt. Bales to “leave the wire” and go on a killing spree of innocent Afghan children as well as other villagers, but frustration is growing within the U.S. ranks as well. This has led to the well publicized burning of the Koran and urinating on dead Taliban soldiers.
The “trust deficit” between American and Afghan security forces is widening. This puts a core principle of the emerging “advise and train” strategy in question. Simply put, if there is a lack of respect and mutual trust, can the concept of placing U.S. advisors with Afghan forces really work? Will our advisors/trainers be safe? Measures can be put in place to alleviate obvious vulnerabilities, but will U.S. advisors feel secure and confident they can work in an increasingly muddled combat environment?
Despite a decade of trying, the Afghan political culture has changed minimally. Corruption is endemic, illiteracy still prevails, women are treated inhumanely by our standards, the opium trade flourishes, and government competence is sorely lacking.
On the financial front, experts believe that more than $8 billion in cash was taken out of the country last year as richer Afghanis prepare for a comfortable life in exile.
Human rights seem at best marginally improved. Women are still jailed for “moral crimes”, such as resisting forced marriages, or even complaining about rape.
Thus it is not surprising that 47% of Americans want our withdrawal schedule ramped up, with only 17% believing that the U.S. should “stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes”.
U.S. Strategy Going Forward
Washington has all but abandoned its ambitious objectives for Afghanistan—a prosperous country committed to human rights, with minimal corruption and incompetence, and its citizens united around a common Constitution and democratic principles. While the Obama administration has not jettisoned its commitment to Afghanistan, it is shifting the focus from major combat operations against the Taliban and other militant groups to training Afghan security forces.
The nation-building precepts embodied in our COIN strategy have been eroded and our primary goals now are simply to deny safe sanctuaries to groups that threaten the United States itself. This means less “COIN” and nation-building, more counter-terrorism and Special Forces operations.
The focus is increasingly on a “counter-terrorism” strategy that Vice President Biden and others have suggested in the past. This entails increased use of drones to attack known or suspected military sites—even in their “safe havens” in Pakistan–, “targeted assassinations” of key Taliban operatives, and use of Special Forces in smaller scale kinetic actions. It means moving away from the “nation-building”, “protect the population” focus that our “COIN” doctrine mandates. It means leaving the more isolated and smaller outposts located close to the villagers, the core of winning the hearts and minds of the populace by living with them precept.
For the President, this being the “good war” he has consistently stated we must fight, this means still rallying American support for a continuing presence, even as casualties grow, metrics are disappointing, and expenditures remain high. However, there is no doubt that even within his own ranks, and probably in the Oval Office as well, there remains less confidence that our ambitious objectives can be achieved.
If so, does the President continue to send American forces into harm’s way? Does he recommit to expending significant resources there in the face of our fiscal crisis? What, some ask, is the morally courageous direction to follow? To continue on a course you believe less in every day so that the U.S. does not “lose face”, or consider other alternatives, even including total withdrawal as soon as possible?
I can’t speak to what policy makers are thinking, but the situation is eerily similar to Viet Nam post Tet in 1968. There was no doubt that Nixon and Kissinger felt that we could not achieve our objectives and that they were looking for a “face saving” negotiated outcome, while soldiers—such as myself—were sent back to the combat zone. No one today wants a repeat of Viet-Nam, where soldiers continued to die and expenditures made while executing an unclear and unconvincing policy.
GEN John Allen, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, faces an enormous task in standing up competent Afghan security forces, maintaining hard fought gains made by US/ISAF forces in the wake of the “surge”, and nudging the Karzai administration to accept the responsibilities inherent in governing. He must reduce American forces by a third by year’s end and rely increasingly on Afghan forces to fill those combat roles.
The President and our military leaders are correct in saying that if we walk away from Afghanistan, terrorists will return the country to Taliban rule or civil war. Things may be bad but they would be far worse if we departed before “the job is done”. Some also say that American trustworthiness as an ally will be eroded and our global standing impaired. They argue that we must hold the course through 2014, when Afghan forces will be strong enough to defend the country themselves.
Giving ourselves less time may guarantee we “lose the country”. But then, there is no guarantee that “staying the course” will not result in the same conclusion—an image of helicopters lifting Americans off the Kabul Embassy haunts us.
In the end, the responsibility for a successful outcome for this war will increasingly be placed on an under resourced military tasked to accomplish ambitious objectives under daunting circumstances.
- Tyrus W. Cobb, PhD
Former Special Assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs