National Security & Defense

The Problem with Our Afghanistan Plan

A soldier assigned to the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division during a flight over central Afghanistan, November 30, 2019. (Specialist Jeffery J. Harris/US Army Reserve)
A troop drawdown along an arbitrary timeline wouldn’t end the war so much as lay the groundwork for a new one.

‘All wars must end,” the newly installed Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller recently wrote to Department of Defense personnel. While a noble sentiment, it is misapplied when concerning the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

After 19 years of war in Afghanistan, duration alone gives policy-makers and citizens alike enough reason to question the mission. Indeed, the nearly 2,500 troops killed in Afghanistan –plus the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent on the war — reinforce Acting Secretary Miller’s sentiment.

Yet the “forever war” that critics routinely denounce is no longer the war that began in 2001 when we invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11. The roughly 4,000 troops that remain deployed today are carrying out a qualitatively different mission than the one the larger, predecessor force carried out for the first 15-plus years of the conflict. It is no longer the counterinsurgency mission that defined the conflict during the George W. Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. Nor is it a robust train-and-equip and counterterrorism effort that demands a large footprint of special-operations forces spanning Afghanistan’s most contested provinces.

Measured in boots on the ground, lives lost, and dollars spent, the war today is markedly different from the one the U.S. fought decades ago. President Obama oversaw the most significant drawdown of forces in 2014 when he announced the end of combat operations and reduced troop levels to fewer than 10,000 from more than 30,000.

President Trump increased troop levels early in his term, but following an agreement with the Taliban this past February, the U.S. began implementing a withdrawal plan that reduced forces to fewer than 5,000. Due in large part to these two decisions, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have declined dramatically since the height of the conflict in 2008–2013. And while the monetary cost of the conflict is a hotly debated topic among number-crunchers, few would disagree that the cost has fallen sharply as we now spend 50 percent less on the war than we did a decade ago.

In other words, for better or worse, the Obama and Trump administrations have already delivered on their promise to end the “forever war.”

To be sure, our forces still often use lethal force and rely on congressional authorization to do so. But this is a much narrower counterterrorism mission supported by a small military presence, designed to prevent terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or ISIS from reemerging and threatening the homeland. That mission remains as relevant today as it did in the days and months following the September 11 attacks.

This is precisely the direction that President Trump took the war in this past August when he again reduced the military footprint in Afghanistan. The move was presented as a “conditions-based” not “calendar-based” drawdown, something that military and political leaders alike consistently say should be the basis for determining the military presence in Afghanistan.

Thus, the recent push from the president and the acting secretary to further reduce military presence, this time along an arbitrary timeline, wouldn’t end the war so much as lay the groundwork for another one. It would reverse the administration’s conditions-based withdrawal framework and effectively begin the final chapter of a slow and steady retreat. It would also be a win for the Taliban, who flouted the Trump administration’s peace agreement tying U.S. military presence to security and political conditions. Most important, it would risk our security at home by removing the forward-deployed strike force, best thought of as an insurance force, that prevents terrorist cells from reemerging in the very space that brought us September 11.

So insofar as “all wars must end” is a respectable sentiment — and I agree that it is — I’m afraid it neglects a critical point. It is how such wars end that determines whether a nation remains safe and prosperous or if it suffers defeat and is forced to face the prospect of renewed combat.

Roger Zakheim is the director of the Reagan Institute in Washington, D.C., and a former general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee.