Why leaving a residual force in Afghanistan may be the only way to both end and win the war.
While it is certainly time to end the war in Afghanistan, doing so does not necessarily require a complete withdrawal of all American forces. Indeed, this would leave the United States with no ability to enforce the central guarantee of February’s agreement with the Taliban: to ensure Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist networks seeking to attack the United States or her allies. Instead, the U.S. should withdraw all but a small residual force, multinational if possible, with a primary focus on intelligence and enough counterterrorism capability to preserve American interests in Afghanistan.
This joint task force would be used to dismantle violent terrorist networks that pose a direct threat to the United States or its allies, but would otherwise avoid kinetic operations. This specific and achievable objective is nested within the strategic aim described in the 2018 National Defense Strategy: to “defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.”
In fact, if properly negotiated and employed, the counterterrorism force could serve the best interests of the United States, its NATO allies, the current Afghan government, and even the Taliban. By leveraging vast intelligence capabilities, the counterterrorism force would focus primarily on disrupting and deterring non-state actors seeking to capitalize on the power vacuum created by an otherwise complete American withdrawal. Most importantly, this proposal serves as both a politically feasible and militarily acceptable option to finally ending the war in Afghanistan without capitulating American interests in a volatile and strategic region.
A complex situation
The original objective for invading Afghanistan in 2001 seemed clear and achievable: to prosecute those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and to ensure that the country would no longer serve as a safe haven for terrorist organizations. This required the Taliban regime to be deposed, and the heroic efforts of American and coalition forces secured that objective by May 2003. But U.S. leaders chose to expand their aims in the country, blurring the strategic goal of American involvement and eroding the distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
The current administration is right to pursue peace with the Taliban. The modern Taliban desire to control their own borders and demonstrate little hope of waging a war of jihad outside of Afghanistan. Furthermore, despite a colossal investment of U.S. resources intended to aid the establishment of a secure and stable, democratically legitimate sovereign government, the bleak reality is such a government does not exist. Systemic challenges – among them the lack of a national identity, the persistence of rampant corruption, and the endurance of popular support for the Taliban – virtually guarantee that a democratically elected Afghan government will not survive without perpetual support from the United States.
Neither will the Afghan military. American forces working with the Afghan military in their fight against the Taliban have secured minimal strategic success over 18 years. Contrary to claims that the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades, or SFABs, have found recent success in this effort, the tangible results have been negligible. To reduce the risk to American forces, SFAB advisors are not allowed to accompany their Afghan partners on tactical missions and must remain on Afghan bases. Thus, despite massive efforts to enable their partner forces through valuable intelligence, airpower, and logistical support, the advisors’ understanding of the battlefield is inadequate and their tactical value is limited.
While maintaining the status quo is inadvisable, a full withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces by May 2021 — the end state envisioned by the conditional agreement between the United States and the Taliban — carries certain risks. One risk is the void such a withdrawal creates. In Iraq, the total withdrawal of all U.S. forces in 2011 enabled the rise of ISIS and contributed to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Military and congressional leaders are keen to avoid a similar situation in Afghanistan, where ISIS in the Khorasan already has a foothold in the eastern region of the country.
Additionally, the strategic value of the American position in Afghanistan – a country that borders Iran, Pakistan, and China – is undeniable. With regional powers like Russia, China, and Iran poised to fill the American void, a complete withdrawal would leave the United States with minimal options to influence the insecurity that would surely ensue. Unlike the American situation in Iraq, there is no Kuwait to serve as a launching pad to quickly respond to an emergent crisis in Afghanistan. Rather, a complete withdrawal severely and unnecessarily limits the United States’ ability to rapidly respond to contingences arising across South Asia.
The way ahead
While American and NATO efforts to aid the Afghan government in defeating the Taliban insurgency have proved ineffective, the American counterterrorism mission has largely been a success. By remembering the original purpose of American involvement in Afghanistan, it is possible to recognize that the United States has, in a sense, already “won” the war. It is time to end the train, advise, and assist mission — Operation Resolute Support — and instead consolidate efforts on protecting American interests in a volatile and strategic region.
The Taliban have already promised to prevent terror organizations from using Afghanistan as a safe haven. By leaving a small contingent of American and allied military forces in Afghanistan — supported by a small but experienced team of interagency intelligence and operational professionals — the United States can supervise and help fulfill that promise. Whether the Taliban intend to hold up their end is certainly a valid question, but perhaps a better question is whether they even could. All indications suggest that neither the democratically elected regime nor the Taliban has adequate capacity to keep terrorists at bay. With luck, the remnant force would serve the interests of the Afghan government – even one controlled by the Taliban – in defeating common enemies like ISIS-K. Less preferably, the threat of airstrikes or a nighttime raid on violent terrorists supported by the Taliban would serve as an insurance policy for the fundamental guarantee of the agreement.
A joint task force composed of special operators could monitor and deter radical terror networks. The group would focus on gathering intelligence, aided by manned and unmanned aircraft and experienced members of the U.S. intelligence and operations community. Its main role would be deterrence, not aggression. Instead of nightly raids and routine airstrikes, its strike elements would be used only upon an imminent threat to the American homeland. The group should be based at Bagram Air Base, providing a foothold where American forces could mass relatively quickly if crisis returns.
The United States should invite NATO allies who currently support Operation Resolute Support to contribute to the remnant force. A multi-national force would lend credibility to the peace-oriented purpose of the mission and would foster continued cooperation with our allies who have already contributed much to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. Like the United Nations Command Support Group that secures the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a multinational force located at Bagram would monitor and oversee the terms of the conditional agreement with the Taliban.
Critics may argue that this proposal would mean reneging on a promise to the Taliban. Yet while the Taliban seem to think that the United States has already agreed to fully withdraw unconditionally, this is simply not the case. In fact, the terms of the deal, as explained by then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, imply that the United States can maintain forces in Afghanistan until intra-Afghan negotiations conclude (likely no earlier than next May) and the Taliban lives up to its side of the deal (which they may never do).
Ultimately, the Taliban’s self-interest will prevail over any promises made in the conditional agreement. Should the United States complete a full withdrawal, there would be little reason for the Taliban to continue peace efforts with the current Afghan government, just as there would be little incentive for the Taliban to root out terror networks seeking to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. But should the Taliban ultimately prove trustworthy in these efforts, American forces could complete a full withdrawal. In the short term, however, every effort should be made to gain the Taliban’s acquiescence for the multi-national remnant force, to include a commitment not to target the Taliban. By gaining the Taliban’s concurrence, the United States increases the unlikely odds of a peaceful transition of power within Afghanistan.
Although such a transfer is a worthy (though unlikely) objective in the conditional agreement, the primary purpose is to ensure the security of the United States and its allies. Therefore, in the absence of Taliban acquiescence, the United States and its allies should be prepared to enact this plan unilaterally, fully recognizing that such action may jeopardize the ongoing peace process. While some might argue that the reputational risk of such action is too great for the United States government on the international stage, the risk of repeating the mistakes that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is far greater – both internationally as well as in the eyes of the American public.
The day that the United States completes a full withdrawal, the value of the conditional agreement dramatically decreases; Washington will have little means of ensuring the Taliban fulfill their promises. However, coupled with a multi-national intelligence and counterterrorism force, the conditional agreement may in fact prove sufficient to ensure the future security of the United States and its allies in the long run. And while the cost of investing in this small residual force would be negligible when compared to the overall cost of the war, the long-term payout may be the difference between “winning” and “losing” America’s longest-running war.
Matt Fiorelli is a Captain in the U.S. Army, Apache pilot, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Most recently, Matt served as the Company Commander of an Attack Helicopter Company in the 101st Airborne Division. The opinions and positions stated here are his alone and do not represent the views or policies of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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