Why We Must Not Send Any More US Troops to Afghanistan

By Daniel L. Davis

In The Washington Post, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wrote an opinion piece arguing the war in Afghanistan is in a stalemate, and the only way to break it is to give the commanding general more combat troops. If the president follows their advice, the almost certain outcome will be an increase in U.S. casualties without any strategic impact on the outcome. The war will continue on without end or purpose. 

McCain and Graham claim that in recent years, the U.S. government has “tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan.” To succeed this time, they wrote, it “requires the right number of people in the right places with the right authorities and the right capabilities,” finally noting it is “imperative that we see our mission through to success.” The only problem with these observations is that they ignore the fact that this sequence has been repeated countless times since 2007 to no effect.

In February 2007, there were only 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill took command and decided to “take a harder line with the militants than his predecessor.” In June 2008, he complained that his command was “under resourced”, which, he said, has “been a constant theme since I’ve been here.”  President Bush  increased the troop strength to 33,000. By September of that year, Gen. McNiell’s replacement, Gen. David D. McKiernan, claimed that “our problem is we don’t have enough resources to” defeat the insurgency, and an additional 20,000 troops should do it. Newly elected President Obama had authorized an additional 17,000 troops to support the mission.

In May 2009, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired Gen. McKiernan because he said “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” were needed. Those eyes belonged to then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whom Gates put in charge. By the time McChrystal had taken command in June 2009 there were approximately 60,000 U.S. Troops, yet by September of that year, McChrystal concluded things were getting worse.

The situation was so dire, the General wrote, that the “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term…risk an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” What was needed, he continued, was a new strategy and more resources. The President approved 30,000 additional troops.

President Obama is routinely blamed for setting artificial deadlines in Afghanistan, calling for the withdrawal of the troops to begin by the summer of 2011. But he did not come to this conclusion on his own.  It was agreed to by Gen. Petraeus, Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Gen. McChrystal.

In case there were any doubt all the senior military leaders of the country—both uniformed and civilian—believed the surge provided enough resources and would work to defeat the insurgency, McChrystal and Petraeus dispelled that in subsequent public statements.

In Gen. McChrystal’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on December 8, 2009, then-Chairman Buck McKeon asked the general if “the deployment of 30,000 troops to the eastern and southern parts of the country and the 18-momth timeline provide the least risk and most opportunity for success compared to the other options you gave to the Commander-in-Chief?” In response Gen. McChrystal replied:

I believe that nothing in this is without risk—as you have said, with least risk—so I think it is appropriate risk… I believe that the resources we have been provided, along with the strategy which we have already started implementing and the resolve reflected by the support of the American people and our other coalition allies, I believe for this 18 months we are going to make tremendous progress against this, while we simultaneously grow Afghanistan's capacity to provide for its own security. That then bridges to the long term.  So I am very comfortable where we are now as we go out toward the strategic partnership, and I don't believe the July 2011 time frame militarily is a major factor in my strategy.

In a January 2011 open letter to the troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus wrote:

“Indeed, together with the establishment of additional organizations and refinements of our strategy, the additional resources enabled us this past fall to get the ‘inputs’ right in Afghanistan for the first time.”

Yet despite the confidence of these two four-star generals, despite the right “inputs” provided by the president, the mission was not successful.

Gen. Petraeus and Admiral Mullen both said they would not come back later and say we should stay forever if the surge did not work. That, unfortunately, is exactly what McCain and Graham are now requesting.

Here is the unequivocal bottom line: despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent over the past 16 years, and the 2,293 killed and 17,674 wounded American troops during that timeframe, Afghanistan is still a violent, unstable country with a hopelessly corrupt government. 

Every commander since Gen. McNeill in 2007 has asked for more troops.  Presidents Bush and Obama authorized the troop request every time, yet not once after getting what the generals asked for were the tactical or strategic objectives met.

I served in Afghanistan at the height of the 2010 surge and can confirm that even with more than 100,000 US troops on the ground, there were still massive swaths of the country that were no-go territory for friendly troops, and the Taliban and other insurgents ran wild. 

So long as Pakistan refuses to stop the Taliban from using its territory as a safe haven and the government in Kabul remains as corrupt as it has been, it wouldn’t matter if President Trump ordered 200,000 troops to Afghanistan: it would never be enough and the war would not be won. Until the Afghan government, people, and Pakistan government decide they’re willing to do whatever it takes to end the war, the fighting will continue, without resolution, irrespective of what military tactics the US employs.

The idea that only a few thousand will “break the stalemate” ignores the past decade of tactical failure with ten times that number of troops.  It is imperative, therefore, that the United States not pointlessly sacrifice the lives of any more American service men and women, nor pour any more treasure into a mission that cannot succeed. 

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on March 22, 2017. Read more HERE.