‘We have made gains over the past year that will put Afghanistan on a better path,” said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on January 27, in a message of congratulations to outgoing commander General John Campbell. But the upbeat pronouncements of top administration officials are inconsistent with nearly all the information coming out of Afghanistan. On the day after Carter’s statement, the latest quarterly report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction observed, “In this reporting period, Afghanistan proved even more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.” An independent assessment by Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal also concluded that the Taliban has rapidly extended the terrain it controls since President Obama announced the official end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. has the ability to blunt the Taliban’s momentum, but a President who refuses to recognize the problem is not likely to provide the necessary resources.
Is There a War in Afghanistan?
On December 21, a Taliban suicide-bombing attack at Bagram air base killed six Americans. On January 5, an American Special Forces soldier, Staff Sergeant Matthew McClintock, died and two others were wounded in Helmand province while assisting Afghan forces. As of mid-2015, American Green Berets were still accompanying their Afghan counterparts on six to ten missions per week, according to Major General Sean Swindell, commander of the Coalition’s special-operations forces. Forty times per week, Americans were providing Afghan special-operations forces with intelligence, logistical support, air cover, or other assistance. In December, Stars & Stripes reported, “U.S. troops are increasingly being pulled back into battle to aid overstretched Afghan forces.”
From the vantage point of the White House, these activities do not amount to war. On the White House website, a list of President Obama’s accomplishments says he “responsibly ended the U.S. combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Shortly before the President’s final State of the Union address, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price tweeted, “The U.S. ended two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing home 90% of 180K troops deployed.” In the address itself, President Obama offered nary a word of thanks to the 9,800 troops who remain. He mentioned the country only once, as part of a list of places where “instability will continue for decades.”
Instead of “the war we must win,” Afghanistan has become the war that must not be named.
Within the military, many dispute the White House portrayal. “I still call it a war,” said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding, “What we’ve shifted away from is a large presence of U.S. combat forces fighting that war.” Defense correspondent Nancy Youssef reported that “several defense officials just shook their heads” when they learned of Price’s claim that the U.S. had “ended” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of “the war we must win,” Afghanistan has become the war that must not be named.
This past Thursday, at a confirmation hearing for the incoming U.S. commander, Lieutenant General John W. Nicholson Jr., Senator John McCain asserted, “The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating, rather than improving.” He then asked, “What is your assessment, General, of the overall tactical situation in Afghanistan?” Nicholson responded, “Sir, I agree with your assessment.”
In the December edition of the twice-a-year reports required by Congress, the Department of Defense stated, “In the second half of 2015, the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks and higher [Afghan security force] and Taliban casualties.” According to NATO officials, Afghan casualties increased 28 percent from 2014, a year when such casualties had already risen to rates that U.S. military leaders had deemed “unsustainable.” In September, the insurgents overran the city of Kunduz, freeing Taliban prisoners and killing government officials before withdrawing after several days. It was the first time since 9/11 that insurgent forces had retaken a provincial capital.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan proved beneficial for extremist organizations determined to wage a global jihad.
In October, the Taliban stepped up their attacks in the key southern province of Helmand, and continued to attack into the cold winter months, a season during which they previously had taken a break from fighting. The epicenter of Afghanistan’s poppy trade, Helmand had largely been pacified by a large U.S. Marine offensive from 2010 to 2012. Toward the end of 2015, the Taliban made large gains in the Helmand districts of Sangin and Marjah, two areas where the U.S. Marines had suffered some of their heaviest casualties. The Taliban also cut the roads leading into Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The deputy governor of the province became so desperate in December that he went on Facebook to publish a plea to Afghanistan’s president for assistance, a decision that cost him his job though it may have helped to prevent a catastrophe. A U.S. military spokesman stated that Afghan military forces in Helmand had failed to stop the Taliban because of “a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness.” These problems were traced to the leadership of the 215th Afghan National Army Corps, of which the corps commander, several brigade commanders, and senior corps staff officers were fired at the end of the year.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan also proved beneficial for extremist organizations determined to wage a global jihad. In October, U.S. and Afghan forces found and eliminated an al-Qaeda training camp in Kandahar province. Thirty square miles in area, it was the largest al-Qaeda camp found in Afghanistan since 2001. It was believed to have been in existence for close to a year, a discouraging indicator of America’s diminished ability to keep track of its enemies in Afghanistan with the “light footprint” that the Obama administration has adopted. In the eastern province of Nangarhar, the Islamic State established a wilaya, or province, whose forces gained control of several districts in 2015. Taliban forces have clashed with the Islamic State in Nangarhar, but a rapprochement between the two is not impossible, considering that both despise the Kabul government more than they despise each other. In light of the growing threat, President Obama authorized American forces to target the Islamic State as well as al-Qaeda.
How to Turn the Tide
There are three principal steps the administration should now take to reverse the gains made by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. First, the U.S. should cancel plans to reduce its troop presence by the end of this year and instead increase the number of American troops. Second, it should increase the number of sorties by American aircraft for close-in support of Afghan forces on the front lines. Third, the U.S. should relieve the burden placed on Afghanistan’s few elite troops by strengthening regular units to the point where they are capable of leading offensive operations and then holding the terrain they capture.
U.S. military leaders have long recognized the danger of relying on too few troops to accomplish a difficult mission. In 2013, General John Allen, the top U.S. commander at the time, put forth a force level of 20,000 American troops as a relatively low-risk option. Independent experts recommended keeping at least 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The White House pooh-poohed those numbers as far too high, and talked instead of reducing the number to 3,000, or even to zero by the end of 2014. Eventually, after U.S. military and intelligence officers offered ominous warnings of the dangers of so drastic a withdrawal, Obama agreed to keep 9,800 troops on the ground, with the goal of a complete withdrawal by the end of his presidency. Only when the Taliban overran Kunduz did Obama announce that he was canceling his plans to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, and would instead maintain a force of 5,500 after that date. At a time of declining military fortunes, however, the prudent course is to increase one’s strength, not to shrink it.
President Obama should also remove restrictions that prevent U.S. aircraft from supporting offensive operations by Afghan security forces. “We should unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists,” write retired General David Petraeus and military analyst Michael O’Hanlon. Under the current rules of engagement, U.S. aircraft can only respond to Taliban attacks on U.S. forces. As a consequence of this policy, the number of airstrikes fell to 400 in 2015, down from 1,100 the previous year and 2,500 earlier in the war. This kind of support is essential, because Afghan forces don’t have sufficient pilots and planes to support frontline troops in contact with the enemy. In the absence of close air support, the Taliban can concentrate their forces in quantities sufficient to overpower government installations and district capitals.
EDITORIAL: In Afghanistan, Obama Starts to Face Reality
Third of all, U.S. should help relieve the pressure on elite Afghan units such as the Ktah Khas and the Commandos, which according to the Pentagon have been frequently deployed on short notice to shore up ineffectual regulars. Yet in an army that numbers some 170,000 soldiers, only 11,700 troops belong to Special Operations units. Experience in a variety of countries has shown that prolonged reliance on elite forces results in heavy attrition from casualties and combat exhaustion. While elite forces can protect key installations, and in some cases even cities, for extended periods, they cannot hold them indefinitely in the face of superior enemy will and manpower. Nor can elite forces control large areas of territory, which is the only way to stop insurgents who excel at mobilizing the population.
The capabilities of conventional Afghan units can be bolstered by bringing American advisers back at the kandak (battalion) level, rather than limiting them to positions at higher headquarters. At the kandak level — where the war is actually fought — advisers can gain a better appreciation of battlefield realities, exert more influence over the Afghans, and coordinate air support, logistics, and other combat-enabling functions. Assistance in those functions, which the United States stripped from all but the elite units when it was trying to “end the war,” must be restored for the regular units.
Remembering What’s at Stake
General John Campbell, the outgoing commander in Afghanistan, recently observed that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is still about American security. “If we don’t stay engaged here to build their capacity to fight this, keep sanctuary down, it’s coming back to the homeland,” Campbell warned. Perennially focused on its timelines for withdrawal, the White House disregarded warnings that preparing Afghan forces to fight on their own was a generational task in a country bereft of human capital. As a result of recent setbacks, however, senior military leaders and Pentagon officials have begun to speak of building effective Afghan security forces as a generational task. The White House remains focused on portraying the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a success, yet at least it now appears to recognize that cutting troop levels back even further would be courting disaster. Although Barack Obama once criticized his predecessor for neglecting Afghanistan and thereby endangering American security, he will now pass on a situation substantially worse than the one he inherited. Hopefully, there will still be time for the next president to commit the resources necessary to undo the damage of recent years.