America has no good military options to use in Afghanistan
No one can forge a lasting peace or win a war on the basis of bluff and bluster, or by ignoring the facts on the ground. This, however, is how the United States is now approaching the war in Afghanistan. Both those who argue for a quick peace deal and those who argue for continuing the war have chosen to ignore the grim realities that actually shape the course of the fighting and the challenges posed by one of the worst and least effective governments in the world.
There are three main sources of official reporting on the military course of the war, the success of Afghan forces, and the importance of American forces. These are reports by the Department of Defense, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, and the Lead Inspector General. All reveal that the war is at best a stalemate, and that it is more probable that the Taliban is slowly winning.
Resolute Support Mission has stopped all reporting on which side controls, contests, and influences given districts, evidently because such reports showed steady Taliban gains. All of the reports, however, raise critical issues about progress in creating effective Afghan forces that can stand on their own, either to secure a peace or to successfully keep fighting. All indicate that government forces now need American combat forces to support them if they are to survive and defend key population centers.
All indicate that the critical issue is not the total number of American troops, but the ability to provide American advisers to Afghan combat units in the field like the Security Force Assistance Brigades, provide support to Afghan special forces from elite American combat troops, and execute large numbers of combat airstrikes supported by some of the most advanced American intelligence and targeting systems in the world.
The reasons why such outside support is critical are all too clear. Afghan forces are not getting better at anything like the rate required. The police lack paramilitary capability, Army manning and retention rates are dropping, and the Afghan air force is still largely a hollow shell. Afghan forces have only defeated major Taliban attacks on population centers because the American air force has increased the number of manned and remotely piloted aircraft sorties that actually release munitions from a low of less than 950 in 2015 to more than 7,300 in 2018, and most recently 3,700 as of this summer.
The personnel figures reported for both the peace plan and for the recent American troop reduction plans are based on gross undercounts of the total foreign military role in Afghanistan. The total strength of the American and Resolute Support Mission military forces needed to support the present Afghan forces is now far more than 14,000 American troops.
These totals only include permanently assigned American military personnel. They do not include “temporary” assignments or the personnel supporting air strikes from outside Afghanistan. They ignore that there also are some 12,200 American contractors, 12,200 more foreign contractors, and more than 6,000 Afghan contractors supporting the active American military. There are also more than 8,400 allied troops that will leave when the United States does. The real personnel total shaped by the current American presence is more like 50,000 than 14,000.
Moreover, no discussion of either peace options or the option of staying in the war has addressed the fact that Afghan security forces still need around $5 billion a year in American aid to function, and the United States is still spending more than $18 billion a year on overseas contingency operations forces inside Afghanistan, not counting combat air and support activity outside it.
In short, there are no good military options. Slashing the total military and contractor personnel or security aid as part of a peace process means creating a potential power vacuum that the Taliban can exploit, particularly since there is no practical way to disarm an irregular force that does not have heavy weapons. It also means trusting the Taliban to become the major Afghan counterterrorism force, a triumph of hope over experience. Staying the course militarily, however, means supporting the Afghan forces indefinitely with no clear path to lasting victory. Leaving without a real peace settlement also means the probable collapse of the government and a Taliban takeover.
The civil options for leaving or staying are no better. The World Bank governance indicators show that Afghanistan still has one of the worst and most corrupt governments in the world, The World Justice Project rates it as having the fourth worst justice system of any country rated, and no one has suggested that the coming election will unify the country behind Ghani or any other leader.
The economy is an explosively divisive force. The World Bank indicates that gross national income per capita was only $550 in 2018 versus an average of $1,925 for South Asia, $1,750 for Bangladesh, $1,580 for Pakistan, and $2,020 for India. Poverty seems to have risen since 2008, and the latest International Monetary Fund rating for multidimensional poverty is 56 percent. The United Nations ranks Afghanistan as the 168th worst country in human development out of the 189 countries it ranks.
Population pressure is intense in a country that has gone from 8.2 million in 1950, and 22.5 million in 2001, to 35.8 million in 2019 in spite of decades of war and migration outside the country. There now is a massive national and youth employment crisis compounded by rising urbanization in cities without enough new jobs.
Afghanistan also needs outside civil aid as much as military aid. It now gets some 189 billion Afghanis in donor aid to fund a budget of 398 billion in 2019 (47 percent). It is projected to need some 246 billion in 2022 (still some 47 percent of the budget). No one has projected what would happen in the case of a peace, but the aid needed to keep both the Taliban and government happy could be significantly higher. At the same time, aid costs would also rise if the United States stayed the course and the war became more intense.
In short, all of the options are bad. The choice, however, should be made between the best possible peace plan and the best plan for staying. This choice should be based on the grim realities on the ground, and offer the best steps forward it can. It should not be made on the basis of hollow political gestures or on the basis of ideological rhetoric.
Anthony Cordesman holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has served as a policy adviser to the Department of Defense and the Department of State.