The War That Never Ends
In December 2009, President Barack Obama traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and announced his plan to deploy an additional 30,000 service members to reinvigorate the Afghanistan War. He returned to the elite military academy in May 2014 to deliver a different message. Just after outlining his plans to withdraw all but 1,000 U.S. forces by 2016 days earlier, he set out to share his foreign policy vision. With the Iraq War over and the Afghanistan War winding down, the president told the graduating cadets, American leadership rested on its ability to use military force as a last resort within a greater array of strategic options including diplomacy and sanctions.
The president, unfortunately, spent the ensuing years backtracking from his drawdown strategy as the conflict intensified. The U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom concluded officially in December 2014, yet weeks before President Obama quietly coordinated with Afghanistan’s political leadership to reauthorize controversial night raids in counterterrorism operations, under the new umbrella Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS). In developing OFS, along with the train-and-assist program Operation Resolute Support or Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the president walked back from his drawdown timeline. First, he acknowledged that 9,800 American troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2015, choosing to hold off on the next phase of withdrawal until after 2016, when he will no longer be in office.
Pentagon leadership is urging the president to revise his schedule once again. OFS is growing in response to a metastasizing terrorism threat in Afghanistan. ISIS established a new branch in the chaotic country, the Islamic State – Khorosan Province (ISKP), is believed to have recruited 3,000 to 5,000 under its banner, and is also rumored to be behind a suicide bombing in Jalalabad, in April 2015 that killed more than 30 people. In response, American rules of engagement have expanded to allow U.S. troops to engage ISKP militants directly. Elsewhere in the country, U.S. Special Forces discovered and destroyed al-Qaeda training camps. This provides a potent symbol that the perpetrators of 9/11 are reconstituting in their former stronghold.
But more than those two threats, it is the continued inadequacy of the Afghan security forces to confront the Taliban that has Pentagon officials asking for more time. The insurgency is once again drawing headlines and elevating anxiety across the Potomac. Last year, the Taliban unleashed a devastating campaign in Kunar Province near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In September, militants disguised as Afghan soldiers launched a “commando-style strike” against a prison, freeing 350 insurgent inmates. In November, the group seized the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, far from its southern stronghold. Taliban fighters, according to the New York Times coverage of the battle, “appeared well trained and organized, making effective use of weapons like high-tech sniper rifles and armored vehicles they had captured.” 2015 was the most violent year in the war’s history, just as 2014 the year before. The group, according to officials, boasts a controlling or significant presence in 30 percent of districts across the country, its largest presence since the October 2001 invasion.
The most intense fighting is taking place in Helmand Province, long a Taliban stronghold, site of some of this war’s fiercest fighting in 2010, and hub of its highly lucrative opium operations. The Afghan army and police forces withdrew from several key districts, suffering heavy casualties and many abandoning their posts. NATO support, including 300 American advisors, has yielded few tangible results as the Taliban recently made gains in two new districts. The insurgency’s success in the symbolic and resource-rich Helmand, according to Afghanistan’s chief intelligence official, is its “biggest recruiting tool” and “primary source of revenue,” for insurgent elements in the country.
The failure of RSM to train Afghan security forces effectively, even after the U.S. spent a reported $60 billion on the effort, is on display. The Afghan army suffers from high dropout, opiate-addiction, and illiteracy rates. When fighting against dynamic Taliban threats, soldiers are refusing to leave their fixed positions into hostile environs until they are forced to flee from them. Professionalism and leadership are lacking among its ranks and human rights abuses are a grave concern. U.S. generals recognize that short-term plans to transform the Afghan army into a capable, responsible bulwark for the government is infeasible. They instead call for a more open-ended RSM that defies the White House’s often faltering determination to keep this war on a brief and pre-determined schedule.
Struggling to combat the myriad threats the country faces, the Afghan government is empowering various other decentralized security tools including the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police Force. At the same time, efforts are under way to rejuvenate local militias under the command of the warlord figures who fought in Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s, allied with the US against the Taliban in 2001, and undermined the central government thereafter. Their lack of respect for human rights, track-record of military inadequacy, and basic lack of loyalty to the state pose deep problems. Arming and supporting these collective forces risk an even more dangerous future should Kabul collapse.
Outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General John F. Campbell, allegedly circumvented Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to share his convictions with the White House back in February 2015. He argued to reintroduce U.S. airpower to the fight in support of Afghan forces, to allow American advisors to join them closer to the front lines, and to target Taliban leaders in OFS operations. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last October, he warned against President Obama’s current plans to draw down after 2016. More time would be needed to complete OFS and RSM. General Campbell’s replacement, General John “Mick” Nicholson is expected to deliver his first review of the war effort in the coming months. His testimony at his confirmation hearing before SASC suggests that he favors many of Campbell’s views.
The Obama administration is reportedly reluctant to embrace the military’s perspectives. General Campbell complained about what he considers to be “a painfully slow process chaired by the White House” that he says consist of long meetings at the deputy, Cabinet, and full National Security Council level. White House officials as well as the Secretary of Defense are vaguely leaving the door open to the military’s requests, but, in echoes of past strategic reviews, it appears that the military and civilian advisors are generally at odds; The military brass calls for more force and more time while White House pushes for as limited a footprint as possible.
As strong as the influence of President Obama’s closest advisors remains, the military seems to have gained some ground. General Campbell, for his frustrations, signaled that the administration’s resistance to his ideas that led to recent adjustments in mission and schedule in Afghanistan ultimately wore down: “every time I got to President Obama I got the decision I was really looking for.” Such acquiesce from the president, from Campbell’s perspective, might signal a greater willingness to favor his general’s advice over that of his inner circle on this war.
Moreover, the military has a strong hand to play when it comes to public pressure: Campbell’s critiques in front of Congress and in the media are creating a buzz. Should General Nicholson’s review put forward an escalation of RSM, and should Secretary Carter stand behind the report’s findings publicly, the White House will no doubt feel “boxed in” again as it had during President Obama’s initial 2009 strategic review. In that scenario, one could expect the president to give more time and resources for training and equipping Afghan security forces if not to expand rules of engagement. Should he decide not to change course, perhaps a more pliant successor will.
The president, who vowed to responsibly end the wars of his predecessor, who expounded a vision of U.S. foreign policy that favored small steps and narrowed the use of military force to only the most urgent needs, will leave behind a legacy of enduring conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as other important priorities develop around the globe. In fact, President Obama frequently finds crises connected to the Middle East and terrorism stealing the thunder from his other initiatives.
In front of him loom many of the same questions about this war that he faced at the beginning of his presidency. Can Afghan political and defense institutions congeal and earn the respect of the population amidst an on-going civil war? Can open-ended American involvement succeed in the nation-building task that standing up the Afghan government requires, if it is achievable at all? Is the Taliban a true national security threat to the United States, or can a more focused effort against al-Qaeda and ISKP protect it? A cursory look at the results of almost fifteen years of combat does not augur well for the answers to these questions, and whatever military strategy the White House agrees to pursue from here must be based on a sober understanding of what is desirable, necessary, and, above all, possible in this war-torn country.
Without pursuing and confronting these answers, the United States runs the risk of replaying this painful drama of rising instability and growing threats, increasing U.S. military engagement, followed by a faltering turnover to Afghan control over and over as in 2001, 2009, and possibly today as well. Do not expect clarity on any of these strategic quandaries any time soon. This war, likely to be one of President Obama’s greatest regrets as Commander-in-Chief, keeps grinding on.
Adam Cohen is a research assistant at a top think tank in Washington, DC. His work centers on the U.S. National Security Council and U.S. national security decision-making. He is a staff writer for Charged Affairs.
Image: U.S. marines take cover in Helmand Province, Afghanistan (credit: Wikimedia Commons)