The situation in Afghanistan is frustrating and even enraging. Despite the death of more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel and the expenditure of billions, even trillions, of dollars over the past 16 years, the Taliban are as much of a threat as ever. They are well-funded—the United Nations estimates that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan set a new record in 2017—and they have cross-border support from Pakistan, which has no intention of cutting them off despite the Trump administration’s cut-off of security assistance.
In January either the Taliban or other insurgent groups such as the Haqqani Network or Islamic State carried out several major attacks in Kabul, including besieging a major hotel popular with foreigners (22 dead) and setting off a bomb inside an ambulance in the middle of the city (over 100 dead). Security conditions in much of the countryside are even worse. The American-backed government in Kabul is said to “control” or “influence” roughly 64 percent of the population, down from 80 percent in 2013. That leaves nearly 11 million people living in areas either “controlled” or “contested” by the Taliban. The government appears farther than ever from its ambitious goal of bringing 80% of the populace under its control by 2019.
While U.S. casualties have been greatly reduced from the war’s height (499 U.S. troops died in 2010, compared to 15 in 2017), Afghan military forces and Afghan civilians continue to suffer the worst fatality totals of the entire war. The situation has become so dire that the U.S. and Afghan governments no longer release figures on Afghan military casualties.
Given the American failure to win, it is tempting to throw up our hands in despair and simply pull out of Afghanistan—and turn over our security commitment either to foreign military contractors or to indigenous warlords. But in the end this is simply not a viable option, which is why President Trump, after actively considering a pull-out or privatization of the war effort last summer, in the end decided to accede to U.S. military commanders’ requests for reinforcements. U.S. troop strength, which had hovered around 10,000 personnel since the premature end of President Obama’s surge in 2016, will now go up to roughly 15,000.
This is not a case of reinforcing failure—a long-standing military no-no. It is, rather, a case of buying an affordable insurance policy to avert a catastrophe, in this case a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. If that were to occur, it would be just as much a blow to American interests as the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014. It would represent another jihadist state that would be closely linked with international terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. A victory for the terrorists would be a catastrophe on multiple levels for the region and for the United States; it could even lead to an Islamist takeover in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state.
Only the presence of a substantial contingent of U.S. troops prevents this catastrophe from coming to pass. Absent U.S. support, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces would be unable to fight effectively and would collapse. We would be back to the pre-9/11 status quo. There is no reason to expect that an increase in contractors would avert the worst-case scenario, given that there are already more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And relying on warlords would simply be a prescription for plunging Afghanistan back into the civil war of the 1990s, which led to the rise of the Taliban in the first place.
The U.S. needs to continue backing the democratically elected, reformist government led by Western-educated technocrat Ashraf Ghani. His security forces are fighting hard against the Taliban and taking heavy casualties. His government is even beginning to prosecute officials whose corruption has done so much to undermine its legitimacy. Unfortunately Ghani is hard-put to exert his will against powerful warlords such as Atta Mohammad Noor, the notoriously corrupt governor of a northern province, who has refused to leave office despite the president’s attempts to fire him. Ghani is even struggling to exert control over the central government because he is forced to share power with a rival politician, Abdullah Abdullah, who occupies the extra-constitutional post of chief executive. Still, backing Ghani is our best bet to keep his country out of the hands of violent extremists—the goal that we have been fighting for since 9/11.
The bad news is that, having already reduced our troop presence too far and too fast under the Obama administration, we will not be able to make another drawdown in the near future. We must simply get used to the prospect that, like the British forces that garrisoned the Northwest Frontier for roughly a century (from the 1840s to the 1940s), U.S. troops must remain for the long haul. The good news is that, while U.S. troops must stay engaged, they need not suffer heavy casualties, because, with the exception of some Special Operations Forces, they are largely in a supporting role. The Afghans are in the lead, fighting and dying for their own country.