President Obama’s recently announced decision to leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan until the end of his term is a prudent move, and one which speaks volumes about the difficulties the United States has faced translating its overwhelming military superiority into durable political outcomes in the post-9/11 era. As the president himself noted in his announcement, despite the enormous investment the United States has made over the last 15 years, “The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Even as they improve, Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be.”
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By lengthening the drawdown of forces, as well as expanding authority for US airstrikes, President Obama is engaging in subtle messaging to both the Afghan government and the Taliban. To the Afghan government, led by the reform minded President Ashraf Ghani, the United States is seeking to send the message that while American support will remain strong, it will not continue indefinitely. To the Taliban, meanwhile, the message is essentially the opposite: you cannot outlast us, which means your only option is to come to the negotiating table. That these messages are in fact contradictory (at least in part) is in keeping with the inherent difficulty the United States faces as it seeks to achieve a graceful exit from Afghanistan.
From the beginning of its campaign after 9/11, the United States has faced a complex set of conditions in Afghanistan. Aiding matters initially were the fact that the United States enjoyed significant support from the international community—beginning with the efforts of its NATO partners—as well as the overwhelming support from the Afghan people, who indeed “greeted US forces as liberators” following the oppressive reign of the Taliban. Conversely, across an array areas, the US military confronted in Afghanistan a country almost perfectly suited to sustain an insurgency, as described in David Galula’s classic Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.
Geographically, Afghanistan possesses a long, mountainous border with a sanctuary state (Pakistan), which has long provided Taliban fighters refuge from US attacks; topographically, Afghanistan is a mountainous country, which again has long provided Taliban forces with natural defensive capabilities; and lastly, demographically, Afghanistan is a sparsely populated country, which has worked to the benefit of the Taliban in their campaign to the thwart the United States’ population-centric warfare efforts.
Looking forward, one is able to recognize a fundamental dilemma the United States faces upon closer inspection of President Obama’s own remarks. In acknowledging that “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be”—this despite 15 years of training efforts by the US military and its partners, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars—one is obliged to ask: at what point exactly will Afghan security forces be ready to stand on their own? And more troublingly, given the failure to do so to date, could it be possible that the support provided by the US military has in fact retarded the Afghan military’s own development by creating a crippling dependence?
That these questions yield such uncertain answers speaks to the uncomfortable position the United States finds itself in with regard to Afghanistan. Uncertain of future success but nonetheless unwilling to concede failure, the United States trudges on, ever fearful of forfeiting what fragile gains it has made.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. and served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985.
Michael Wackenreuter is currently working with the Center for American Progress with a focus on National Security and International Policy while he studies for a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served in the 2nd Infantry Division, United States Army from 2011-2014 and deployed to Afghanistanin 2012. He is a graduate of Tulane University.