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Since the supposed end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, the primary mission of U.S. military forces has been to train, support, and bolster the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) in order to ensure their long-term success and ability to secure the country. This effort is at least sixteen years old, but the outcomes have been disappointing. The negative metrics are simply overwhelming. At present, the following conditions prevail in the ANDSF:
- There are high rates of absenteeism and 35 percent of the force is not reenlisting each year.
- Widespread illiteracy remains rampant.
- Inconsistent leadership pervades and so does a “deficit of logistical capabilities.”
- Senior U.S. commanders have admitted that casualty rates within the ANDSF are “unsustainable” — numbering 5,500 fatalities in 2015, 6,700 in 2016, and estimates (the number is newly classified) of “about 10,000” in 2017. The 2018 estimates run even higher.
- Between casualties and desertions, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated an overall 10 percent attrition rate for the ANDSF in 2017.
- The U.S. Congress has appropriated about $72.8 billion to this failing force since 2002, with 75 percent of the estimated annual ANDSF budget of $5 billion coming from the United States (the rest pro-vided by America’s international allies, mostly NATO).
- Credible allegations of child sexual abuse and other human rights abuses perpetrated by ANDSF personnel continue to be reported.
- The Afghan National Army (ANA) component of the ANDSF is more than 30,000 troops under its authorized size and actually down 8,000 personnel since May 2017.
- The Afghan Air Force (AAF) component of the ANDSF faces “equipment, maintenance, and logistical difficulties,” and has only 104 total rotary and fixed-wing aircraft — a completely insufficient number to provide tactical air support nationwide — and comparable to just the number of rotary aircraft in a single U.S. Army Aviation Brigade.
- The Afghan National Police (ANP) component of the ANDSF (not strictly police in the American sense of the word, but rather a well-armed paramilitary army) has even higher attrition and desertion rates. Two percent of policemen desert each month and overall attrition stands at about 25 percent annually.
The candid assessments of several U.S. military commanders and advisors are correct — none of the above metrics is sustainable. In spite of optimistic and sanitized assertions from top policymakers, the ANDSF appears on the verge of a veritable breaking point. Seventeen years of American military training, support, and mentoring have, ultimately, been unable to avoid this outcome.
U.S. and NATO troops levels and missions
U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan have fluctuated for nearly two decades, reaching a high of 100,000 in 2011 — when the author served in Kandahar Province — and standing today at about 14,500. Nevertheless, this sustained commitment and sacrifice (to the tune of 2,419 dead as of mid January 2019) has not meaningfully staunched the tide of Taliban gains. The question at hand is this: what can about 15,000 U.S. troops accomplish in 2019 that 100,000 could not achieve in 2010-11?
NATO provides limited support to the U.S. mission but the American military still contributes the vast majority of troops. While NATO leaders have publicly committed to support the mission through 2020, it is unclear what will occur if or when NATO countries lose interest or patience with the two-decade war. Furthermore, it is clear that the ANDSF is still highly reliant on the logistical support, air cover, and special-forces raids of U.S. and NATO troops. That, too, is unsustainable.
Much of the current U.S. mission — in addition to training and advising the ANDSF — is dedicated to combatting the relatively new Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). That said, ISKP is mostly limited to a few districts in the country’s east and has, according to U.S. military estimates, been attritted from 1,300 fighters in September 2016, to 700 in April 2017, with the pressure only increasing. Furthermore, ISKP is as much a branding slogan as a genuine ISIS identity and, at times, ISKP and the Taliban have clashed over territorial or political control. That presents an opportunity to divide the two groups with little effort or commitment and demonstrates the eminently containable nature of the Afghan ISKP threat.
President Trump’s instincts to withdraw from the country are commendable and he ought to follow them. His “new” compromise strategy, which defined his first two years in office, on the other hand, represented little more than a paltry synthesis of old Obama- and Bush-era thinking on the intractable problem set in Afghanistan.
Unsustainable: Economics and corruption in Afghanistan
Decades of brutal warfare have “stunted the development of domestic industries,” including the vital mining sector. Afghanistan’s GDP (according to 2015 estimates) tops out at only $62.62 billion. Foreign aid accounts for more than 95 percent of the national GDP. Furthermore, annual Afghan government revenues amount to only $2 billion, despite the country’s having a $7.3 billion annual budget (the remainder is picked up primarily by the U.S. taxpayers and other foreign partners). Afghan revenue mostly comes from taxation, but that is also tied to the security crisis, as enemy-held districts are difficult to effectively tax, even with the new computerized system. Afghanistan’s government is also stagnant. Despite initial annual GDP gains of about 7 percent per year from 2003 to 2013, growth has dropped to about 1 and 2 percent from 2014 to 2017.
The costs to the United States to maintain this unsustainable economic status quo have been immense. Congress has appropriated more than $126 billion in aid to Afghanistan’s government (62 percent for security, 38 percent for development) since 2001 — and that doesn’t count U.S. military operational expenses, which run to at least $752 billion over the last seventeen years. Furthermore, despite recent improvements, corruption runs rampant in Afghan government industries. Owing to concerns about fraud, waste, and abuse (including losing billions), the FY2008 defense authorization bill mandated the establishment of a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which has churned out one pessimistic report after another ever since.
The economic bottom line is as simple as it is stark: The Afghan GDP is largely based on foreign aid; and domestic revenue is insufficient even to fund the security sector (which runs at $5 billion annually against $2 billion of domestic revenue). That is an unsustainable formula for perpetual U.S. involvement in the conflict. Afghanistan’s government (and economic sector) has an incentive to maintain the status quo in order to ensure continued U.S. funding and thereby propping up the economy; that also fuels and feeds ongoing problems with corruption.
The prudent course for the United States is to swiftly and totally disentangle from the Afghan maelstrom and immediately bring all U.S. troops home. Afghanistan has been at war, persistently, for 39 years. In 2001, the United States entered a nation already long at war and the U.S. portion of the mission has covered only 17 of those 39 years of Afghan conflict. Afghanistan was broken when the United States arrived; it will, undoubtedly, remain at war when America departs — whether that is now or in a generation.
The United States, which has already spent nearly a trillion dollars and 2,500 lives in this land-locked backwater, should pivot instead to homeland defense from any actual existential threats to American security. Here it is vital to remember that contemporary transnational terror does not require the safe haven of the ungoverned caves and valleys of Afghanistan — even 9/11 was largely planned from Germany and within the United States itself. Finally, the opportunity costs and tradeoffs inherent in the expenditure of $1 trillion in a losing and futile war must be understood. Resources are limited.
Undoubtedly, some readers will counter with certain common, if worn out, counterarguments. Each is rather easily refuted:
- If the United States leaves, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State will enjoy a “safe haven” from which to plan the “next” 9/11-style attack on the United States. At this point, the safe-haven myth belies reality. Transnational terror groups populate portions of countries from Niger to Pakistan, yet the United States has neither the capacity nor intent to indefinitely occupy them all with military forces. Indeed, Afghanistan has fewer al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters than several other countries in the Greater Middle East.
- If the withdrawal of American troops hasn’t brought stability, perhaps a greater infusion of troops and counterinsurgency saturation will bring victory. Beyond the questionable definition of what exactly would constitute victory, the United States possesses neither the resources nor the national will to militarily pacify Afghanistan. How many troops would it take? That is a difficult question, but it’s possible to estimate. In 2003, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki estimated — correctly — that it would take “several hundred thousand troops” to occupy and stabilize Iraq — far more than the Bush administration (incorrectly, as became obvious) argued were necessary. If one defines “several hundred thousand” as 500,000 troops, takes into account that Iraq is about two-thirds the size of Afghanistan, and that the Afghan terrain is far more mountainous and imposing, an estimate of 750,000 troops on the ground is not inconceivable. Considering that the entire U.S. Army numbers fewer than 500,000 soldiers, it becomes obvious that the United States lacks the necessary resources to achieve “victory.”
- Still, won’t there be chaos in the wake of American withdrawal? Yes! There will, but that is inevitable no matter when the U.S. military departs. First off, the chaos and insecurity are already worsening even with U.S. troops still on the ground. Indeed, the outcome in Afghanistan will very likely be ugly, but matters in this troubled country have long been ugly. The likely reality is that an Afghan equilibrium will eventually be reached. That may mean a new national partition along ethnic and geographic lines, with a Taliban-influenced south and a Northern Alliance-like federal government in Kabul and in the country’s north. The question is what, exactly, the U.S. military can do — short of perpetual occupation — to reverse that likely outcome?
Disentangle from Afghanistan
There is no military solution to the Afghan War. An Afghan settlement to the ongoing Afghan conflict will be ugly, but that is an inevitable, irreversible reality the United States must accept and immediately end its costly and futile, indefinite intervention.
The “melancholy fact,” according to long-time regional specialist Ahmed Rashid, “is that the American public is not much engaged with what happens in Afghanistan, either way.” That, in itself, is a persuasive argument for military disengagement. The American people may, in fact, be way ahead of Washington policymakers in realizing the futility of continued U.S. engagement. When announcing his “new” strategy in August 2017, Trump candidly admitted that his “original instinct” was to pull out of Afghanistan. He, and the American people, were correct — and he should follow those sound instincts.