Given the referenced situation in my previous article, Afghanistan Reality will not Bow to Presidential Politics, we are left at the crossroads of determining what the proper path forward for the war in Afghanistan might be. Recognizing that our current options at the national level are, again, a fixed withdrawal with a continuation of current policies (Obama) versus a somewhat though very imperceptibly less fixed withdrawal with a continuation of current policies (Romney), it is safe to assume that the course to be recommended differs greatly from those “options.”
So we have established that we cannot continue the mission, but just quitting entirely leads to the very real threat of the Taliban retaking control and allowing the same Islamic extremism that caused 9/11 a safe place to train and grow. What is needed is a mission change; a retrenchment to a realistic and attainable goal that can be fought towards with less unnecessary risk of American lives and less overall cost. The fact is that we cannot continue to tie our fortunes to a failing local government and weak-kneed allies.
There are several key adjustments in strategy and mission required. A true solution does not lend itself to a bumper sticker, so they are detailed:
1) The mission is to keep the Taliban from developing a stronghold. It is not to build a government, it is not to pacify areas, it is not to build roads. It is not anything but preventing Afghanistan, in its relatively lawless state, from being used as a base for future attacks on the United States and its interests.
2) Troops will no longer embed with Afghan police or military units. American trainers will assist the Afghan Army in their academies, and missions will be coordinated as necessary with the Afghan military as is necessary, beneficial, and as they are willing. If the rest of the new strategy is unacceptable to the Afghan government to the point that they are unwilling to accede to these joint actions, then the US military will simply operate independently. The gain of working with Afghans beyond duly employed and vetted interpreters is not worth the danger of doing so, and discourages any negotiation on this issue.
3) The rules of engagement will be appropriate with the situation. Night raids will resume, Americans will take the lead on patrols, mosques will be entered if they are used as bases for the Taliban, and detention of enemy combatants will return to US hands. No apologies will be issued for legitimate military operations. Combat missions will all be targeted, with preference for helicopter-based movement. Drone, helicopter, and fixed wing overflight will monitor the countryside for signs of Taliban infiltration.
4) The force footprint will be adjusted to three Brigade Combat Teams (approximately 4,000 troops each), with one based each at the three of the main bases in Afghanistan – Bagram, Kandahar, and Herat, which allows for proper distribution. They will be supported by two total aviation brigades (attack and transport helicopters) split appropriately amongst the bases, and enough Air Force personnel to provide airlift support to each base along with airfield security, with fixed-wing close air support provided through Air Force fighter and bomber wings, proportionally reduced in size along with ground forces, and Navy carrier-based fighters. Along with these conventional forces, a proportional amount of special operations personnel would be based in the country for unconventional warfare and high value target raids. The total size of the force would be around 30,000, about half the current level.
5) Our allies will all be given the option to withdraw immediately to whatever level they so choose, without any ill will. Any who remain will allocate as necessary. The multiple levels of counterproductive international military hierarchy (ISAF, ISAF Joint Command, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan) will be dissolved and reconstituted around a single commander with a small and reasonable support element.
Once this realignment of mission and force arrayal is complete, one might rationally ask to what effect it is being deployed, what the goals are, what the future looks like, and what the end of the war looks like.
With the forces appropriately realigned and re-missioned, the Taliban must once again be effectively crushed as they were in the course of the initial invasion. This is entirely possible with a refocused military with a more appropriate set of rules of engagement, as evidenced by how quickly they were crushed in 2001-2002. Once the ground commanders are confident that the Taliban has been effectively disrupted and dispersed out of the country, likely after 1-2 years from the mission change, all conventional forces can be withdrawn from the country.
Key to this withdrawal would be its conditionality. We would leave, minus whatever minimal force is negotiated with the Afghan government to assist with training, provide drone overflight, et cetera, but with the commitment that we would continue intelligence and counterterror flights as necessary, and that should the Taliban become resurgent we would recommit ground forces for a fixed period of time.
Now many who see this suggestion would see it as counterintuitive. To commit to reintroducing combat troops in a more invasion-type scenario seems to imply a higher cost in terms of lives and dollars, along with the stigma associated with “fighting the same war again.” This, however, is an irrational fear.
The fact is that the invasion and clearance phase of Operation Enduring Freedom, which for these purposes we will consider to be fiscal year 2002 plus the half month of September 2001, came to about $25 billion inflation-adjusted dollars. The average annual cost of the occupation phase, meanwhile, comes to $51.3 billion. The cost in lives is even starker, with 61 US military personnel dying in calendar year 2002 and September-December 2001, against an average of 208 per year for all other years of the war.
The question then is not if we would rather “win” the war, it is this – is it better to “fight the same war again later,” perhaps a few more times over the course of the next two decades, or is it better to be fighting the same war continuously until “later” arrives? Any rational student of international relations or security will agree that leaving Afghanistan en masse with no commitment to preventing Taliban resurgence will create a safe haven for potential future terrorist attacks. So it is not either quit or stay, it is stay and tread water (while gradually sinking), or leave after setting the table for the current Afghan military to have a shot at winning, with the committed and acknowledged ability for our military to again do what they do best: invade the country and crush the enemy, then leave.
So the final question is then, how do we do make this happen? How do we get such a sea change of strategy and mission, one that would likely offend our Afghan “hosts” and possibly our allies, to occur? To this, there is a simple answer, and a blunt one: bold, decisive leadership.
Leadership that takes the hard right over the easy wrong, leadership that recognizes our position as the sole global superpower, and makes decisions that reflect that strength. Leadership that, while possibly disliked globally, would be respected for its firmness and solidity of judgment. We have even been given, if one could call frame such a series of tragedies as a positive, the political cover of the spate of insider attacks by Afghan military and police on our personnel, a solid reason that would entirely justify a move away from building the current corrupt Afghan government and towards simply securing the area.
So that is it then. Leadership. Will we get it, or will we get more of the same? Only time and an election will tell.