July 7, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan’s Endless War
In 2010 there were nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, yet the security situation in 2011 was demonstrably worse—as it has been every year since. Currently, there are 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (as well as 3,000 NATO and other foreign troops), the majority of which are involved in the ‘train, advise, assist (TAA)’ program for the Afghan military. The June 6 announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2017 highlights the difficulty of using troop numbers as a positive metric in a conflict that has trended negatively for a decade.
The effort to help the Afghan security forces become self-sufficient enough to effectively take on the Taliban—which currently holds more territory than it has at any point since 2001—has had countless supposed turning points. U.S. and NATO efforts to build a functioning military bureaucracy distinct from an ineffective central government have been laudable, but without lasting positive impact.
In conflicts such as Afghanistan, the scale of the problem dwarfs the resources and capabilities available to address it. The Afghan National Army's Special Forces, who are well-regarded following years of training, are not enough to turn the tide in a civil war; nor are similar units in Iraq, Yemen, or Syria. Tactical successes have not translated into lasting strategic victory because the military and governmental framework does not allow for it.
With the complete breakdown of the international community’s approach to conflict resolution comes the paralysis of foreign intervention and support missions. Withdrawal carries a stigma of failure, while increased troop levels merely delay it at immense cost. In reality, conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq—and now Yemen and, above all, Syria—will not be resolved by foreign troops. The question is not whether fewer or more troops would resolve these conflicts, but rather, whether their presence can enable a long-term reconciliation and resolution. To date, neither approach has worked in these persistent conflicts.
The U.S. has pledged to maintain troops in Afghanistan until there is a political settlement between the central government and the Taliban. The Taliban has declared that it will continue to fight until there are no more foreign troops left in the country. However, the U.S. and NATO cannot walk away in the hope that the Taliban and Kabul reach a rapprochement. As in Iraq, the goals are far clearer than the feasible paths towards achieving them.
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