America has no good military options to use in Afghanistan

America has no good military options to use in Afghanistan
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No one can forge lasting peace or win a war on the basis of bluff and bluster, or by ignoring the sheer facts on the ground. This, however, is how the United States is currently approaching the long running war in Afghanistan. Both those who argue for a quick peace deal and those who argue for continuing the war have chosen to ignore the grim realities that are actually shaping the course of the fighting and the challenges posed by one of the worst and least effective governments in the world.

There are three main sources of official reporting on the military course of the war, the success of Afghan forces, and the importance of American forces on the ground. These are the official reporting by the Department of Defense, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, and the Lead Inspector General. All reveal that the war is at best a stalemate, and that it is now more probable that the Taliban is slowly winning.

Resolute Support Mission has stopped reporting on which side controls, contests, and influences given districts, evidently because such reports showed steady Taliban gains. All of the reports, however, raise critical issues about progress in creating effective Afghan forces that can stand on their own, either to secure a peace or to successfully keep fighting. All indicate that government forces now need American combat forces to support them if they are to survive and defend key population centers.

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All indicate that the critical issue on the ground is not the total number of American troops, but the ability to provide American advisers to Afghan combat units in the field like the Security Force Assistance Brigades, provide support to Afghan special forces from elite American combat troops, and execute a large number of airstrikes supported by the most advanced intelligence and targeting systems of the United States.

The reasons why such outside support is critical are all too clear. Afghan forces are not getting better at anything like the rate required. The police lack paramilitary capability, army retention rates are dropping, and the Afghan air force is still largely a hollow shell. Afghan forces have only defeated major Taliban attacks on population centers because the American air force has increased the number of manned and remotely piloted aircraft sorties that release munitions from a low of less than 950 in 2015 to more than 7,300 in 2018, and most recently 3,700 this year.

The personnel figures reported for both the peace plan and for the recent American troop reduction plans are based on gross undercounts of the total foreign military role in Afghanistan. The combined strength of the American and Resolute Support Mission military forces needed to support the present Afghan forces is now far more than 14,000 American troops.

These total figures only include permanently assigned American military personnel. They do not include “temporary” assignments or the personnel supporting air strikes from outside Afghanistan. They ignore the fact that there are also around 12,200 American contractors, 12,200 more foreign contractors, and more than 6,000 Afghan contractors supporting the active American military. There are also more than 8,400 allied troops that will leave when the United States does. The real personnel total shaped by the American presence in Afghanistan is more like 50,000 than 14,000.

No discussion of either peace talks or staying in the war has addressed the fact that Afghan security forces still need some $5 billion a year in American aid to function, and the United States is still spending more than $18 billion a year on overseas contingency operations forces inside Afghanistan, not counting combat air and support activity outside it.

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In short, there are no good military options. Slashing the total military and contractor personnel or security aid as part of any peace process creates a potential power vacuum that the Taliban can exploit, since there is no practical way to disarm an irregular force that does not maintain heavy weapons. It also means trusting the Taliban to become the major Afghan counterterrorism force. Staying the course militarily, however, means supporting the Afghan forces indefinitely with no clear path to lasting victory. Leaving the country without a concrete peace settlement also means the probable collapse of the government and a Taliban takeover.

The civil options for leaving or staying are no better. The World Bank governance indicators show that Afghanistan still has one of the worst and most corrupt governments on the globe. The World Justice Project rates it as having the fourth worst justice system of any country rated, and no one has suggested that the coming election will unify the country behind Afghan President Ashraf Ghani or any other political leader.

The economy is an explosively divisive force. The World Bank indicates that gross national income per capita is only $550 versus an average of $1,925 for South Asia, $1,750 for Bangladesh, $1,580 for Pakistan, and $2,020 for India. Poverty is a problem, and the International Monetary Fund rates multidimensional poverty at 56 percent. The United Nations ranks Afghanistan 168 out of 189 countries for human development.

Population pressure is intense in Afghanistan, which has grown from eight million in 1950 and more than 22 million in 2001 to nearly 36 million this year in spite of decades of war and migration outside the country. There now is a massive national and youth employment crisis that is further compounded by rising urbanization in cities without enough new jobs.

Afghanistan also needs outside civil aid as much as military aid. No one has projected what would happen in the case of a peace deal, but the aid needed to keep both the Taliban and government happy could be significantly higher. At the same time, aid costs would also rise if the United States stayed the course and the war became more intense.

Ultimately, all of the options are bad. The choice, however, should be made between the best possible peace plan and the best plan for staying. This critical choice should be based on the grim realities on the ground, and offer the best steps forward it can. It should not be made on the basis of hollow political gestures or on the basis of heated ideological rhetoric.

Anthony Cordesman holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has served as a policy adviser to the Department of Defense and the Department of State.