Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Being Honest About U.S. Military Strategy in Afghanistan

by Micah Zenko
February 9, 2017

U.S. Marines from the First Battalion Eighth Marines Alpha Company patrol a remote eastern corner of Musa Qala district in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province February 22, 2011 (Reuters/O'Reilly).


Today, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John “Mic” Nicholson, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Though it remains the longest war in American history, the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan received little attention during the presidential race and even less since President Trump entered office. You may recall that in December 2009, President Obama authorized the deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 97,000. The vast majority of those troops have returned home; there are 8,400 troops in country now (plus 26,000 military contractors, 9,474 of whom are U.S. citizens).

Since Obama’s Afghan surge, the security situation has deteriorated markedly. Nearly 1,700 U.S. troops were killed while serving there, the annual number of civilians casualties (the majority of whom were killed or injured by the Taliban) increased from 7,162 (in 2010) to 11,418 (in 2016), the number of jihadist groups grew (including the creation of a satellite Islamic State outpost)—all while the Taliban expanded its control and influence over more territory than at any other point since 9/11. That last metric is especially revealing, given Obama’s vow that the additional forces would “reverse the Taliban’s momentum.” This has not happened.

During today’s hearing, SASC Chairman John McCain asked Nicholson outright, “In your assessment, are we winning or losing?” Nicholson replied, “We’re in a stalemate.” Nicholson added that his command’s objective was to “destroy al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were doing most of the direct fighting to accomplish this. However, he noted that he was a “few thousand” troops short of what was needed to adequately train and advise the ANSF. Though Nicholson did not say so explicitly, the implication was that just a few more troops could turn the tide. But it is hard to imagine how these additional forces would improve the security situation in any lasting way.

The most telling moment in the SASC hearing came when Nicholson remarked that plans were being developed to “find success” in Afghanistan within the next four years. That would mark a full twenty years of direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Since the first Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary teams entered Afghanistan in November 2001, 2,350 servicemembers have given their lives and almost $900 billion in taxpayers’ money has been spent. Meanwhile, the country is less politically stable and less secure from all forms of insurgent and criminal predation. No one can say how or when this largely forgotten war will end, but “finding success” certainly should begin with some realism, honesty, and a corresponding adjustment in U.S. expectations and objectives.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Frank Hoffman

    Excellent paper. More honesty, realism and transparency would immeasurably improve our strategic thinking.

    I share the author’s concerns about our inputs and losses, but can’t assess the implications without knowing what was at risk.

    In addition to considering an adjustment, we should evaluate our national interest in a chaotic Afghanistan as well, and the corresponding interests in a stable Pakistan.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    “You may recall that in December 2009, President Obama authorized the deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 97,000.”
    Actually Obama started immediately upon gaining office in January 2009 to increase troop levels from 30,000 to over 100,000, and increase of about 70,000.
    This was despite a pledge he made in April 2009 to form a regional council to seek a political settlement. But then, we do know that Obama was a lying SOB.
    Then in September 2009 General McChrystal, one of a number of US generals who (ineffectively) rotated through Afghanistan, assessed that Pakistan was supporting the Taliban because of a fear of Indian involvement on their western flank. That didn’t stop Obama. He declared at West Point in December 2009 that Pakistan was an ally. Stupid.
    So after fifteen futile years “we’re in a stalemate” and need more thousands of troops. Well 70,000 more was not enough, how about 200,000 more as General Westmoreland asked for in Vietnam many years ago? That caused President Johnson to throw in the towel. What will Trump do?

  • Posted by Marco Franco

    We have been in Afghanistan over a decade, fighting and training and so were the Russians who left the country defeated, now this General wants to escalate the conflict I assume because he must have promised Trump that here is an opportunity to show that we are back winning wars with a dirty dozen American convicted soldiers just like in the movies.
    One wonders what kind of people do we train? years and years of training and they still need more time? that is pure unadulterated retired Generals mentality, they could not do it when they were on active duty what makes them think they can change that?

  • Posted by Shoshana Bryen

    No one is asking the question, “What is the ultimate US goal in Afghanistan?” Are we there to protect a corrupt regime from an Islamic regime? Are we there to keep the Taliban – an indigenous force – out of the country? Will we build a wall? Are we there to bring “democracy” to people for whom tribal loyalty is most significant? And, btw, tribal loyalty is nothing to sneer at – it is a pretty good way for people under colonial occupation (see the rest of the Middle East and SW Asia) to organize themselves.

    The lives are the real treasure lost and the money is significant. But ask what we expect Afghanistan to look like “when the war is over” and no one can tell you. To what projected end would those few thousand more Americans make a difference?

  • Posted by Savannah

    What are those troops doing there anyway? Is Afghanistan a threat for America? Why? Why no other countries have issues with Afghanistan?

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    The US has customarily invoked 9/11 and “eliminate safe haven” as great reasons to fiddle around in Afghanistan. Originally the real reason was to provide an anchor for the US ‘New Silk Road” strategy to convert the -Stans in central Asia into US allies, which also involved an energy pipeline. Alas, it all came to naught. Time (past time) to declare victory and get out. If Trump bows to Nicholson he’s a fool.

  • Posted by Abraham Wgner

    One of the few honest and realistic assessments. Gets to the basic point that in some 15 years of war we have accomplished little and are worse off in many respects. What is missing are some basic facts, such as over 60% of the GNP comes from selling illegal drugs; only 19% of the male population can read; and most of the population have no use for a central government of any kind. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Posted by Nazir Hussain

    With over 2000 killed and $900 billion spent and still asking what to do is not a good omen. Best option is to decided leave Afghanistan, ald let Afghan sort it out themselves.

    Some policy adjustment vis a vis Muslims in general will help soften the situation. No one sees US as evil but policies are certainly contested, which is a normal thing .

    As for Pakistan, it has genuine concern about use of Afghan soil by India against it and example is Baluchistan turmoil. No one in this civilized world break up countries but India did it and is bent doing it again. Pakistan will fight whosoever threaten its integrity.

  • Posted by nick g. p.

    Over 15 years of death, destruction and catastrophe, yet the Delusional Imperial Dreamers are still waiting and looking for the success coming around the corner, Unaware the 18th and 19th Centuries of the Kiplingesque great game imperialism is long past and gone into the Shit-Can of History!!

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    General Flynn is currently in the news for lying, which is not unusual for generals such as the series of generals who have lied about progress in Afghanistan (and Iraq).

  • Posted by LJ

    I think the question no one is asking is “Who benefits from all these wars?” It is a given that the citizens in Afghanistan, (nor in any of the other countries in which the USA has militarily interfered – Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, etc, etc -) have benefited, nor have most US citzens. In fact, citizens of both have paid with lives and wealth.

    It makes no sense to try to resolve the conflicts, or even to try to make sense of the conflicts without looking at who is in fact benefiting. I suspect that there are some people (corporations?) who are making huge amounts of money from these conflicts, and are influencing (if not directing) the policy decisions that both lead to the wars and prolong them.

  • Posted by Sean D

    My nephew spent 3 years with “A” teams as sitting ducks in FOB’s at the outer reaches of supply and air support. Every valley can literally absorb a U.S. Army division, they were about platoon strength.

    The locals smile in the day, and rain down death at night. Can you say Viet Nam? A trillion spent, wonderful contractor profits though!

    We have so overused and abused our military the past 15 years, with nothing but increased Mid East instability to show for our efforts.

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