War

The Afghan Mini-Surge Has a Strategy Deficit

For a new plan to be successful, the U.S. will have to define what "success" actually means.

Not halting the Taliban.

Photographer: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

After prolonged internal debate, the Donald Trump administration seems to be nearing a decision on how to proceed in America’s long war in Afghanistan. Trump’s military advisers -- along with his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster -- are said to be pushing a plan to send several thousand additional troops into that conflict.

QuickTake Afghanistan's War

Can this “mini-surge” succeed? It all depends on how success is defined. If the goal is to decisively turn the tide of the war and force the Taliban to make peace, then the answer will almost certainly be "no." Yet if the administration seeks more modest but still meaningful goals in Afghanistan, a mini-surge may do the trick.

Trump is reportedly considering dispatching perhaps 3,000-5,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. These reinforcements would supplement the roughly 8,400 U.S. troops and 4,600 coalition troops in the country, and would likely be accompanied by additional contributions from mainly North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. 

The apparent strategic rationale for these deployments -- as publicly stated by General John Nicolson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- is to "break the stalemate" with the Taliban. A strengthened U.S. and NATO presence, so the thinking goes, will enable Washington and its partners to support Afghan forces more effectively, regain the initiative against the insurgency, and thereby -- eventually -- force the Taliban to enter into negotiations and acquiesce in an enduring peace.

This seems like wishful thinking. The U.S. was incapable of breaking the back of the insurgency in 2010-11, when it had roughly 100,000 troops in country, complemented by tens of thousands of NATO forces. Nor was it capable, even at this vastly higher level of commitment, of convincing Pakistan -- long the strongest foreign sponsor of the Taliban and a vital safe haven for its leaders -- to jettison its Afghan proxies or give them the crucial push toward a negotiated peace. There is little reason to believe that the mini-surge the Trump administration is contemplating will deliver better results today.

With a total force of perhaps 18,000-20,000 foreign troops, the U.S. and its partners will still lack a sustained presence in all but a few select locations around Afghanistan. They will still be acting in support of an Afghan government that is corrupt and deeply divided, and an Afghan military that is overstretched, demoralized, absorbing heavy casualties, and only intermittently capable of operating on its own.

Although the Pakistani government has become somewhat more attuned to the need for an eventual peace settlement than it was in 2011, it is far from clear that a few thousand new U.S. and NATO troops will be enough to end the strategic hedging that has led Islamabad to support the Taliban for so long.

Finally, given that the Taliban has been steadily gaining ground in recent years, it seems unlikely that a mini-surge will increase the military pressure so drastically as to force its leaders to give up their dreams of a battlefield victory and agree to a peace plan the Afghan government and its foreign allies can accept. If the Taliban withstood a much larger foreign deployment several years ago, why would it relent in the face of a much more limited U.S. effort today?

In other words, the mini-surge advocates are suffering from a strategy deficit. The minimal additions that the U.S. will be committing to the fight are almost certainly insufficient to accomplish the ambitious desired ends.  

So does this mean that sending in a few thousand troops would be pointless? Not necessarily. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish. There are actually two strategic logics that might justify such an approach, even if they are not the ones being publicly articulated by Nicolson and others.

The first would hold that a mini-surge is required not to win the war in Afghanistan, but simply to avoid losing it. Many feel the situation on the ground is not really a "stalemate," but a deteriorating one in which Afghan forces are slowly but steadily losing ground. If so, an infusion of several thousand U.S. and European troops might be sufficient to halt the bleeding and stave off collapse.

After all, a mini-surge along the lines envisioned by the Pentagon would enable greater -- if hardly transformative -- support for Afghan forces; it would, if paired with more aggressive rules of engagement, also give U.S. commanders greater ability to take the fight to the Taliban. And preventing a collapse of the Afghan military, or even the gradual loss of significantly more territory, remains an important U.S. security interest. It is essential to avoiding a situation in which large swaths of the country again become safe havens and training grounds for terrorists.

If the U.S. can avert that danger with a total deployment of just 10,000 to 15,000 troops, then the investment might well be worthwhile. To be sure, if the military situation continues to deteriorate even with additional Western forces, there could come a point at which the level of U.S. commitment required to sustain the Afghan military is no longer worth bearing. At present, however, a 10,000-15,000 troop presence -- which is far from trivial, but not so great as to significantly compromise other U.S. global commitments -- falls short of that threshold.

The second logic, related to the first, would be if the true purpose of the mini-surge were not so much to defeat the insurgency as to enable more aggressive counterterrorism operations. The primary U.S. interest in Afghanistan has always been counterterrorism, and today there are worrying signs that the country is again turning into a terrorist playground. Islamic State and its ally the Khorasan Group, made up primarily of former al-Qaeda fighters, are carrying out larger and more audacious attacks in Afghanistan, including an assault on a hospital in Kabul in March that killed dozens.  

U.S. forces have begun targeting ISIS-Khorasan more aggressively, even using the Pentagon's most powerful non-nuclear weapon, known cheekily as the "mother of all bombs," against an ISIS tunnel complex in April. ISIS-Khorasan isn't the only extremist group looking to make gains. In late 2015, U.S. forces carried out a major operation to uproot a training camp used by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Kandahar province; the U.S. commander at the time called it "probably the largest" such camp discovered in the entire Afghan war.

If a few thousand more troops -- which would undoubtedly include hundreds of special operations forces -- enabled the U.S. and its partners to prevent such dangerous organizations from regaining a greater foothold in Afghanistan, then a mini-surge would seem strategically justifiable.

In other words, an Afghan mini-surge is not necessarily doomed to failure. Yet whether such an initiative can succeed -- and whether it is even strategically defensible -- hinges critically on what, and how precisely defined, its objectives are.

If the White House and Pentagon understand that 5,000 more troops can produce only modest, but nonetheless important, results in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for catastrophic terrorism, then this approach may indeed be worth pursuing. But if the Trump and his advisers double down in Afghanistan in the grander hope that a mini-surge can bring about the strategic victory that has eluded America for nearly 16 years, they are begging for disappointment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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