By Daniel L. Davis
The past few months have seen a series of setbacks for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as the Taliban has slowly gained territory and further destabilized the country through suicide attacks. As President Barack Obama’s second term winds down, he faces a critical decision over whether to follow through on a scheduled force reduction in the country.
While the military’s direct combat role in Afghanistan officially ended almost two years ago, nearly 10,000 troops remain, helping train Afghan soldiers and at times carrying out offensive strikes against the Taliban. The military is supposed to reduce the number of troops to 5,500 by the end of the year, but as the militants have gained ground, military leaders and politicians have increasingly called for Obama to delay the drawdown. This would be a big mistake. Instead of doubling down on a failed military strategy, the president should either make drastic changes to the mission or bring the war — really — to an end.
The new commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has reportedly just sent the White House his still-secret assessment of the Afghan security situation after his first 90 days in command, including a recommendation on whether the president should draw down the U.S. troop contingent to 5,500 as scheduled, keep it steady at 9,800 or even expand it. If recent experience is any guide, Nicholson’s assessment is likely to carry significant weight with Obama as he makes the ultimate decision.
In 2013, suggestions by then-commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen influenced the secretary of defense and president to delay the withdrawal. In 2014, the president said after meeting with the commander, then-Gen. Joseph Dunford, that he would leave 9,800 troops there, but cut the force by half before the end of 2015, then reduce it to only a diplomatic security detail. Then, just a year later, the president changed the withdrawal schedule again, saying “I’ve consulted with Gen. [John] Campbell in Afghanistan and my national security team, and I’ve decided that we will maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of this year.” Nicholson’s report will therefore likely carry great weight.
There are already signs that the president intends not merely to slow the withdrawal again, but also to further entrench the U.S.’s military role in Afghanistan. Last week, Obama approved plans to allow U.S. forces to use air power directly against Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Security officials told Fox News themove was intended “to expand the authority of U.S. commanders to strike the Taliban and better support and assist the Afghan forces when needed in critical operations,” adding that there is “a broad desire across the Obama administration to give the military greater ability to help the Afghans fight and win the war.”
The explanation these officials gave perfectly demonstrates the strategic flaws with the U.S.’s current mission in Afghanistan. It served only to describe what additional tasks the military will be doing, but wholly absent was a crucial component of military strategy: What result are those actions intended to produce?
Second lieutenants-in-the-making from the Marine Corps officer candidate school are taught that when planning military operations, there are two critical things that must be explained: task and purpose. The “task describes the action to be taken, while the purpose describes the desired result of the action. Of the two, the purpose (Why) is predominant.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are articulating the task — expanding U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan to include Taliban targets — but there is no mention of the actual purpose. In other words, what quantifiable outcomes are they seeking?
The United States military is highly skilled at conducting airstrikes. We have more experience in the air than any nation on earth. It is not difficult to increase the number of targets to be attacked. But toward what end? Are the additional sorties intended to tip the balance in the fight between Afghan ground forces and Taliban foot soldiers? Is the desired result to destroy the Taliban in a given area? We don’t know, because none of the commanders or security officials have said. What I can tell you from having been trained as a ground controller in the 1990s and having observed close air support in action in 2011, the task given our forces to expand airstrikes is not going to achieve any strategic results. Even when we employed hundreds of NATO attack aircraft and bombers, they were cumulatively unable to check the rise of the Taliban. Having a handful now won’t even have an operational impact, much less strategically.
Whenever Nicholson’s review and troop recommendations are made public, there are three things we should look for: 1) what are those troops going to be ordered to do (what is their purpose); 2) what strategic objectives are they expected to accomplish (what result are they expected to attain); and 3) how long might it take and how much it might cost in blood and treasure to accomplish? If recent experience is any guide, what we can expect from the general is probably something like this: My purpose would be to keep as much combat power as I could for as long as I could — which is what outgoing Commander Gen. John Campbell said last December.
Keeping a bunch of troops on the ground is not a strategic outcome. Simply having a given number of troops there accomplishes nothing. The American people deserve and the Congress should demand a detailed accounting of the task and purpose the remaining troops are to be given. The tasks must be something the military can successfully perform. The purpose must contribute to the defense of American security interests and be achievable in a reasonable time frame at an acceptable cost. Absent satisfactory answers to each of those requirements, the task and purpose must be adjusted to something realistic — or serious consideration must be given to withdrawing the troops on the current schedule.
The Afghan people do not benefit if the United States employs military tactics that don’t contribute to the defeat of the insurgency, and it does not advance American interests to aimlessly dribble out combat power. If we merely extend the employment of the 9,800 troops, the best that can be hoped for is the extension of the status quo, which right now is a steady increase in insurgent power and growing instability of the Afghan government. But it will not be sufficient to turn the tide in favor of Kabul’s troops. Unless Washington is prepared to permanently deploy U.S. personnel to provide security for the country of Afghanistan, significant changes must be made.
Either the White House must devise a military mission that has a realistic chance of success and contributes to the defeat of the insurgency or terror groups, or it must be honest with the Afghan government and American people and announce that beginning on a certain date, we will complete the phased withdrawal of the remaining personnel until only a diplomatic security detail remains. The Afghan government would have that time to prepare itself to provide its security with indigenous forces, just as every other nation on earth does. The U.S. should still provide civil, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance on a sustained basis, but military power won’t save Kabul.
The U.S. has already invested 15 years, hundreds of billions of dollars, and the blood and limbs of thousands of American citizens in the defense of Afghanistan. The time has come to be honest about what U.S. military power can and cannot accomplish, and make firm plans for the orderly withdrawal of American troops.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published in Politico on June 21, 2016. Read more HERE.