Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is now in Washington, and it looks like he will bring home an extension in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But it’s not much of a presence, and it’s not much of an extension.
In fact, it’s mostly an extension of the same pattern of mistakes that have left the country in such a parlous state today. Neither in nor out, the U.S. engagement limps along tied to a series of deadlines that serve mainly to delay the negotiations that offer the only real prospect for a tolerable outcome. The result is an opportunity to lose more expensively than simple disengagement would do, keeping the war on life support while neither enabling military progress on the ground nor empowering negotiators to end the war by settlement.
At this late date, only so much can be done to change a grim prognosis. But the best thing the Administration could do now would be to remove the deadlines altogether and offer to keep a small presence as long as necessary. Failing that, the U.S. is just delaying failure a bit while making it more expensive.
Before Ghani’s visit, the U.S. plan was to end the American military mission altogether by December 2016 (with only a handful of U.S. Embassy guards and staff officers remaining in Kabul). Today’s roughly 10,000 troops would shrink to half that by the end of this year before going to roughly zero the year after. Now, the U.S. will instead keep the 10,000 a bit longer – perhaps through mid-2016 – before then shrinking to the same level of roughly zero by the same deadline.
What will this accomplish? Very little.
The strategic reality of Afghanistan today is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are incapable of winning the war. With some luck they can maintain a rough stalemate, but they have no meaningful chance to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. An acceptable outcome thus turns on peace talks to settle the war via negotiated mutual compromise. If talks fail, the only other plausible end game is now outright government defeat and a descent into 1990s-style chaos.
Ten thousand American advisors won’t change this basic military reality. Mainly, the advisors are a political signal of U.S. commitment. But this signal has an expiration date: December 2016. This gives the Taliban an incentive to wait and see what happens afterwards, rather than negotiating any serious compromises beforehand. Maybe, they reason, U.S. money will come home when the last U.S. troops do. And without U.S. money, the ANSF won’t be fighting very long – its annual operating budget is much bigger than the entire domestic revenue of the Afghan government. Foreigners, and especially the U.S. Congress, provide the money to keep the ANSF in the field. Without this aid the ANSF would collapse. December 2016 isn’t all that far off; why, then, should the Taliban negotiate for a half a loaf now when the U.S. deadline might trigger a collapse that would give the Taliban the whole bakery soon enough?
In fact, this problem has been a recurring theme in U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. Every measure has an expiration date attached. The troop surge was announced with a deadline — July 2011 — for its duration. The combat mission had a date for its termination: December 2014. The U.S. deployment would shrink to 32,000 by mid-2014, and 9,800 by 2015. And the U.S. presence is now to end altogether by December 2016. Each of these deadlines postpones negotiation by creating uncertainty about what will happen afterwards: will the ANSF hold once the surge goes home? Will it hold once the U.S. combat mission ends? Can it cope with half as many U.S. troops? And can it manage with none? Each time, Taliban negotiators face an incentive to wait a bit and see what happens after this deadline passes.
Nor have the measures preceding these deadlines been forceful enough to drive the Taliban to the table in the meantime. With less time, one needs more troops. The 2009 surge came with both fewer troops than the military command wanted and less time.
Such middle-ground compromises are often wise policy in domestic politics; in warfare, they often lead to a more expensive version of failure. In Afghanistan, U.S. policy has been a series of middle-ground compromises between complete commitment and complete disengagement, often with calendar deadlines unrelated to conditions on the ground. The Ghani visit has now produced one more: an incremental slowdown in the U.S. withdrawal with a continuing deadline of December 2016 for the next experiment in what the ANSF can do afterward. A better plan would break this habit and end the deadlines in order to facilitate serious talks. Without this, the U.S. is just kicking an expensive can further down the road toward failure.