By Daniel DePetris
In late 2009, the United States faced an Afghanistan that was devolving into chaos, buttressed by a government in Kabul that was as incompetent and weak as it was corrupt. Obama administration officials and the generals running the operation at the time attempted to explain to lawmakers on Capitol Hill why an influx of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was absolutely necessary to turn things around. “Failure in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time, “would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war.”
President Obama was convinced. Over the short-term, at enormous sacrifice to the lives of the U.S. soldiers and marines operating on the frontlines, vast swaths of Helmand and Kandahar provinces were cleared of Taliban insurgents for a short period of time.
The U.S. strategy during the surge, however, didn’t generate lasting effects that its architects hoped it would. The Afghan government never removed corrupt powerbrokers in their political system, removing any chance of the desired outcome from the U.S. surge—to provide a temporary respite by military force so that political reconciliation could heal what ails the country.
Now, five years after all the drawdown from that surge, the U.S. generals running the war are yet again lobbying Capitol Hill for more U.S. troops and resources——. The American people were sold the same bill of goods that Obama administration officials successfully sold years earlier—that all Washington needs is several thousand additional American trainers and advisers and perhaps a little more tactical authority, and the mission would be successful. The Afghan war would turn from a “stalemate” to a winner.
Do this sound familiar? It certainly should, because we’ve heard this argument so many times that it’s almost become tradition for U.S. war planners to take review the strategy during the beginning of every year and request the same set of recommendations—more money, manpower, firepower, fighter aircraft, intelligence support, and budget assistance—to salvage the operation.
The problem, however, is a failed strategy that relies on the premise that the U.S. can change Aghanistan from the outside when lasting change can only come from within.
In 2010, U.S. Marines were deployed to the poppy plantations and dirt fields of Helmand to route the Taliban from their stronghold. In 2017, 300 U.S. Marines are back in Helmand, working and sleeping in the same bases and standing on the same ground with a mission that is almost identical to what the corps was ordered to do seven years ago. Gunnery Sgt. Ronnie C. Mills of Kentucky summed up the almost insane situation that these marines find themselves in, “[i]t’s kind of disheartening—the sacrifices you and your Marines made, and to see it go back to where it was.”
Sgt. Mills is right. It’s disheartening in the least, and that feeling is unfortunately captured in some grim statistics courtesy of the U.S. government. The most recent quarterly assessment from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) describes a country whose military and political elite have made little progress over the last decade and a half.
“Afghanistan,” according to the report, “remains in the grip of a deadly war. Casualties suffered by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents continue to be shockingly high.” Security incidents are at the highest they’ve been since the U.N. first kept records of the violence; civilian casualties too are at their highest rate since numbers have been tracked. And the casualties and attrition that Afghan soldiers are barely sustaining has driven roughly 35 percent of the entire force to other professions after year of military service.
Coupled with $117 billion in U.S. reconstruction assistance-– nearly $72 billion of which have been allocated to simply maintaining the Afghan army’s current military capacity—-– one can quickly understand why many Americans look at the war in Afghanistan as a continuous financial burden on the backs of the U.S. taxpayer that does nothing to enhance our security.
Yet despite these trend lines, the administration is content with the very same recommendations that proved to be so fleeting when they were first proposed in 2009.
If 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops could only buy a couple of years of relative security, why does U.S. commanding Gen. John Nicholson believe that a few thousand extra American trainers will be enough produce a miracle—? And even if the security situation did change for the better, how long would U.S. troops have to stay in Helmand to maintain the peace? Indefinitely?
The time for conventional solutions is over and the time for realistic, fact-based analysis is here. After 16 consecutive years of a war that nobody talks much about anymore, we must confront the central lesson of this entire ordeal: Outside of a half million American troops, occupying Afghanistan for decades on end, American diplomats becoming the viceroys of a tribal society, and U.S. soldiers using enormously brutal tactics to cow the Taliban into submission, the U.S. and its NATO allies lack the capacity to pacify Afghanistan.
Washington has come to another fork in the road. The U.S. can either adopt more escalatory tactics and more aggressive military involvement in the war in order to buy a short-term peace. Or, the U.S. military can turn responsibility over to NATO, and the U.S. State Department can devote more diplomatic resources to jumpstart an Afghan-led political reconciliation process.
Washington chose the first option time and time again. It should learn from its mistakes, follow the wisdom of American voters, and choose the second option today.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by US News and World Report on May 9, 2017. Read more HERE.