Still missing in action: US strategy in Afghanistan
18 Dec 2017|

Amid the focus on the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s growing power, Australia’s military operation in Afghanistan barely receives attention in the strategic debate. However, as the US-led NATO mission is about to enter its 17th year, a realistic strategy to end an almost ‘unwinnable war’ is still missing. Australia should initiate a serious debate with our coalition partners in 2018 about the long-term objectives and prospects in this protracted conflict.

Western publics long ago lost their appetite for spending billions of dollars and precious lives in Afghanistan. Indeed, in his masterful account of Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan, Theo Farrell argues that the coalition’s strategy was almost doomed to fail from the beginning of the war in 2001 because of unclear aims and overoptimistic assumptions about conditions on the ground. He presents a powerful case against half-baked Western interventionism based on shaky strategic assumptions.

That said, it must be noted the US, as the lead nation in the Afghanistan intervention, also wasted major opportunities to potentially achieve lasting success, to degrade the insurgency and to help build sustainable political structures. First, US President George W. Bush’s decision to take his eyes off the ball and to invade Iraq in 2003 led to serious under-resourcing of the counterinsurgency campaign and a deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country. Then his successor, Barack Obama, presided over a half-hearted ‘surge’ in 2009–10, failing to authorise sufficient troop increases for a sustained counterinsurgency effort, reducing the commitment to building an accountable and effective Afghan government, and even announcing timelines for a phased US troop withdrawal. As Paul Miller has concluded, Obama’s approach reflected Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy 45 years earlier, when the ‘President escalated a war while simultaneously doubting whether it could be won’.

Tragically, just as the Afghan ‘surge’ showed signs of success in pushing the insurgents onto the defensive, Obama insisted on reducing US troops despite clear indications that that would undo most of the progress made: from 65,000 US troops at the start of 2013 to 40,000 in 2014, and just 9,800 in 2015.

As predicted, Afghan security forces were in no position to pick up the slack, enabling the Taliban to regain territory across the country. Only after the security situation became too dire to ignore, and faced with significant pressure from military commanders, did Obama scrap his plan to withdraw all forces by the end of his second term. Instead, by the time he left office in January 2017, around 8,400 US troops remained in Afghanistan. But he also left his successor, Donald Trump, with an unsustainable strategic situation. By May 2017, NATO’s Resolute Support Mission for Afghanistan had only 13,576 troops deployed, including 6,941 US forces—a force too small to permanently degrade the insurgency.

That left Trump—who as presidential candidate had called the war a ‘total disaster’—with two basic options: withdraw from the country and risk greater instability in Afghanistan and the re-emergence of safe havens for terrorist groups, or stay and reconsider the strategy. After an internal policy review, Trump announced a new Afghanistan strategy in August. This ‘strategy’ would be based on a modest troop increase—reportedly up to 4,000—a focus on counterterrorism, an end of nation-building efforts, and calls on Afghanistan to fight corruption and on Pakistan to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban. He also stated the conditions for ‘victory’:

From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.

However, not only is this definition of victory very broad but it’s also unachievable. The military footprint is simply too small to prevent the Taliban from controlling and contesting significant territory; Pakistan is unlikely to be swayed by American threats, not least because of its closer relationship with China and control over NATO’s logistical chokepoints; and the unwillingness to address the political and economic root causes of the conflict will render the military effort fruitless. Thus, as Christopher Kolenda has pointed out, Trump’s ‘new’ strategy is in fact more of the same and unlikely to achieve ‘decisive victory’.

Thus, while Australia and its NATO partners officially welcomed Trump’s Afghan ‘strategy’, they know that it’s not deserving of its name and that the US government has just kicked the can down the road.

It’s time that Australian strategy-makers remember US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s retrospective insight about the failure in Vietnam:

I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe is clear today, that military force—especially when wielded by an outside power—cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.

More than ever, these words ring true in Afghanistan today. The new year should see our probing debate.