5 ways the US can recover lost ground in Afghanistan
With Washington completely engaged by tweets, leaks and partisan bickering, few took notice of the recent sobering testimony from Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. about the war in Afghanistan.
Nicholson, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, assessed the coalition’s 15-year war as a “stalemate.” In terms of forces, he said that the coalition had adequate forces for counterterrorism, but was short several thousand coalition troops to bolster the advisory and assistance mission “below the corps level,” where hard-pressed Afghan brigades and police units are fighting hard and taking record casualties.
Nicholson also noted a number of positive developments:
- Last year, U.S. forces killed five major terrorist leaders in or around Afghanistan.
- Afghan forces successfully blocked the Taliban from its key objective of seizing provincial capitals.
- Afghan special forces and the fledgling Afghan Air Force consistently punched above their weight class.
- The Afghan Army and police — hard-pressed and shrinking — remained excellent fighters and loyal to the central government, which has proven itself to be a reliable ally.
To mark these accomplishments and set the course for the future, 39 members of the coalition last year pledged nearly $16 billion in aid during the next few years. Still, 13,000 coalition military personnel and 25,000 civilian contractors support the Afghans’ efforts.
Nicholson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will also have to brief the challenges at the upcoming NATO summit.
Twenty international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have taken up residence in Afghanistan. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan noted last month that the percentage of the 407 Afghan districts that are under government control declined by 15 percent in the past year, falling to only 57 percent of the total.
More than 40 percent of Afghan districts are “contested,” or under Taliban control. While some of this is due to a strategic realignment by the Afghan high command, it also reflects fierce fighting across the countryside, resulting in record Afghan casualties — more than 30,000 in the last two years — for the 316,000 Afghan Army and police forces. Civilian casualties exceeded 15,000 in the same timeframe.
How did we get to this point? The Obama administration started off well in Afghanistan. It twice surged forces there, but then inadvertently motivated our enemies to fight harder by declaring our intention to withdraw our troops on a fixed schedule that ignored political and military conditions.
Once again, the United States followed an exit strategy that placed the emphasis on the exit and not the strategy. It is hard to argue with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said last week that we tied the military’s hands and pursued an objective not of winning but of “trying not to lose.”
To win in Afghanistan, we have to defeat the international terrorist groups and the rabid elements of what has become a very tired Taliban. We need to leave behind an Afghanistan free of al Qaeda and ISIS and at peace with its neighbors.
The key to victory is to improve the performance of Afghan forces on the battlefield and shift the momentum of the conflict to Afghanistan’s favor. Simultaneously, the United States must press Pakistan to stop active assistance to, and passive toleration of, various elements of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
With those two measures accomplished, a major peace conference, supported by the powers in the region, may take place and achieve a better peace. In the wake of that peace conference, a war-torn Afghanistan, with the help of its friends and allies, will then be able to address its domestic problems, endemic corruption and narcotics problem.
To get to success in Afghanistan, the United States will need to step up its efforts. Here are five ways to do so:
1. The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan needs to be strengthened.
Our new line should be: Afghanistan is a major non-NATO ally; abandonment is out of the question. This firm commitment will signal our allies and adversaries that we will help the Afghan government fight on to victory and beyond.
2. President Trump should put Pakistan on notice.
The U.S. wants an ally, not a “frenemy” cooperating in some areas but aiding the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network for its own interests. U.S. envoys need to be clear: The era of jawboning and lax cooperation is over. The U.S. henceforth will give its aid — nearly $1 billion dollars per year — conditionally and, if necessary, we will pursue coercive diplomacy.
The message to Pakistan should be that the future of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship hangs in the balance. Cooperate or be cut loose.
3. The U.S. should give Nicholson the fair share of the reinforcements he requested as coalition commander.
This will put more advisers into lower-level Afghan units. To up the ante on the battlefield, Afghanistan and the coalition need to find ways to increase Afghan access to indigenous and allied tactical air support.
Improving the Afghan Air Force must be a top priority.
4. The U.S., its coalition partners and the United Nations must provide more humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.
In addition to fighting a war, Afghanistan needs more help with the millions of refugees who have returned from Europe, Iran and Pakistan. The U.N. estimates that 9.3 million Afghans will need humanitarian assistance in 2017, up 13 percent from 2016.
5. The White House needs to pay more attention to this important conflict.
Afghanistan was barely mentioned in the campaign, and Trump has not yet had an opportunity to look at it. Afghan political and military leaders need reassurance, and the tenuous state of the war requires that the U.S. National Security Council address it on an expedited basis.
There is still time to help Afghanistan succeed against terrorism. To do this, the U.S. must reaffirm its commitment, reverse adverse trends on the battlefield, cement Pakistani cooperation and reassure our Allies that their fight is our fight.
With the right policy, a forgotten war can become a happy memory and the first major national security success of the Trump administration.
Joseph J. Collins is the director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University (NDU). A retired Army colonel and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, he has written two books on war in Afghanistan. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense or any other government entity.
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