June 14, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The U.S. and an Endless War
On June 13, reports emerged that the Trump administration was giving the Pentagon full authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan. On the same day, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the conflict in Afghanistan was in a ‘stalemate’. In an effort to break the stalemate, the U.S. military will likely look to increase troop levels by at least several thousand, though it remains unclear what the additional troops could achieve that previous troop increases could not. For the vast majority of the more than 15 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the problem has not been a question of what tactical gains the U.S. military could achieve, but rather how such hard fought gains could be sustained by an Afghan government and military unable to turn these gains into long-term strategic victories.
On June 10, three more U.S. servicemen were killed in Afghanistan—this time in a so-called ‘green-on-blue’ insider attack in which an Afghan solider turned his weapon on the U.S. soldiers next to him. Over 2,000 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001; the conflict is by far the longest war in U.S. history. In addition to the U.S. losses, the Afghan military and police forces have suffered even greater losses each year. The reality of the conflict is that the Taliban now hold more territory than at any time since 2001; al-Qaeda still maintains a level of operational and planning capability; and the so-called Islamic State has established a small but meaningful foothold in the eastern part of the country. The six U.S. servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan in 2017 died in missions—whether training or combat—related to the Islamic State, all in Nangarhar Province.
The discussion over troop levels masks a far larger problem for the U.S. Nearly every year since 2001 has been labeled a ‘turning point’ in the war that would require an increase in troop levels, resources, or stated intentions of remaining committed. Yet the underlying foundation upon which the entire U.S. strategy rests appears increasingly unachievable. The Afghan government—which sees its legitimacy routinely undercut through rampant corruption—has proven unable to generate popular support in sufficient measure to counter the resurging Taliban insurgency. The U.S. military strategy of ‘train and equip’—which has been the focal point since early 2002 after the fall of the Taliban—has been immense in terms of effort and resources expended, but has injected these resources into a system unable to absorb or leverage them to bring about lasting positive change.
It is common for U.S. administrations to heavily weigh the counsel of military commanders when it comes to developing strategies for achieving specific strategic goals. Yet in Afghanistan—as well as the conflict in Iraq and Syria—there is no clear or obtainable goal beyond tactical military victories and generic statements of showing resolve or helping partners help themselves. In recent years, when the situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly dire, U.S. military leaders have stated that additional U.S. troops were needed to buy more time for the Afghan government to stabilize the situation, reverse the gains made by the Taliban, and then maintain control, all while undergoing massive and necessary reforms in terms of good governance. Any future increases in U.S. troop levels will be used for the first goal of stabilizing the situation by turning around the tide of steady defeats the Afghan military has sustained. But even with tens of thousands of more troops—which is unlikely—reversing losses against the Taliban, sustaining those reversed losses, and implementing good, effective governance will remain unachievable—all while putting additional American servicemen and women in harm’s way.
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