The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, will soon complete an assessment that is expected to call for more U.S. troops than the Obama Administration has planned. Current policy calls for reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan from today’s 9,800 troops to 5,500 by the end of this year. Security has deteriorated sharply since the U.S. ended its official combat role in 2014, however, and Nicholson is expected to favor slower U.S. drawdowns. If so, the general is right. But what’s needed isn’t a slower timetable for withdrawals – it’s the end of timetables altogether.
In fact, ending the U.S. pattern of war-by-the-clock matters more than any particular troop count. The U.S. objective in Afghanistan is not to withdraw – if so, Washington could meet its goal immediately. The objective is to end the war on terms Americans and Afghans can live with. But calendar deadlines and fixed withdrawal schedules make this almost impossible.
The range of plausible outcomes in Afghanistan is now very narrow. The Afghan government could lose the war outright, or it can negotiate a compromise settlement with the major insurgent factions. There is no longer any meaningful prospect to defeat the Taliban. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are barely holding the line; they are not going to take the offensive and drive the Taliban from the country. Nor can they outlast the Taliban in an indefinite stalemate. Afghanistan’s security forces cost far more than Kabul can afford without foreign assistance: the ANDSF’s FY 2013 operating budget of $6.5 billion was more than twice the Afghan government’s entire federal revenue. Most of this money comes from the U.S. Congress, which will not keep writing multi-billion-dollar annual checks for faraway Afghanistan indefinitely. A few more years, yes; forever, no. Eventually this aid will be trimmed, and it won’t take much of a budget cutback before the ANDSF breaks up along factional lines and the Kabul government falls. As the Taliban say, Americans have the clocks but the Taliban have the time. If the war becomes a contest in stamina between the Congress and the Taliban, then I’d bet on the Taliban. The only alternative to eventual collapse is thus a negotiated settlement to end the war before this happens.
Negotiation prospects look bad at the moment. The Taliban’s recent battlefield successes make them less interested in compromise, and their succession rivalries after the deaths of former leaders Mullah Mohammed Omar and Akhtar Mansour encourage obstinacy as a means of solidifying power. Settlement progress, if it happens at all, will be years away.
A settlement is not impossible. It will require real compromise, which will be a bitter pill to swallow. But if compromise is offered then the Taliban have objective incentives to bargain. The most important of these are created by the recent escalation in the U.S. drone campaign. Mullah Mansour refused to negotiate, seeking to win the war outright instead. He was then killed by a U.S. drone strike that violated the Taliban’s erstwhile sanctuary in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. Mansour’s death postpones serious negotiations while his successor consolidates power, but in the medium term it may encourage the Taliban to bargain rather than merely outlast the U.S. Congress in an indefinite contest of stamina. The Taliban leadership must now factor into their calculations the serious prospect that if they refuse to negotiate, then they may personally be killed before Kabul falls. They will not just surrender to avert this. But they might be willing to consider compromise offers if the alternative is years of warfare with their own lives on the line every year.
This makes it more conceivable that the war can be settled before Congress pulls the plug – but only if Washington pushes slow-moving talks as fast as they can go. Some delays are inevitable, but others aren’t, and Washington cannot afford any unnecessary delay. New withdrawal deadlines create exactly this kind of gratuitous delay.
Every new deadline creates a new opportunity for the ANDSF to collapse outright soon – and thus a new incentive for the Taliban to wait a bit longer and see if a quick ANDSF collapse wins the war for them promptly without either compromise or the risks of a protracted drone campaign. If the plan is to negotiate a settlement, then troop deployments must support the plan: any withdrawals should be negotiated in exchange for an end to the war, not promised on a calendar date in exchange for nothing.
Various policy changes would help in Afghanistan, from increased U.S. air support for ANDSF forces to reduced ANDSF corruption and cronyism. But none will matter without a settlement, and the ubiquitous calendar deadlines that delay negotiations thus undermine everything else, too. The best thing Washington can do is to break its deadline habit now.