TSG IntelBrief: Losing the ‘Stalemate’ in Afghanistan
February 10, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• During February 9 testimony to Congress, U.S. General John Nicholson stated the more than 15-year conflict in Afghanistan was at ‘a stalemate.’
• General Nicholson testified as the head of the international coalition partnered with the Afghan government, which continues to lose ground to the Taliban.
• His request for more troops would be a major reversal of recent policy; it is uncertain what the addition of several thousand troops could accomplish in a sustainable fashion.
• At this stage, there is little room for optimism in what is the longest running foreign conflict in American history.
During the recent U.S. presidential election, there was very little discussion of the ongoing U.S. role in the conflict in Afghanistan. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated for years—regardless of troop surges or drawdowns. Despite claims of progress, the Afghan government lost 15 percent more territory to the Taliban in 2016, according to congressional testimony by U.S. General John Nicholson, who oversees the international military coalition in the country.
Describing the situation as a ‘stalemate,’ General Nicholson told Congress that several thousand additional troops were needed to help the NATO effort to train and advise the perpetually struggling Afghan National Army (ANA). For more than 15 years, the U.S. and its partners have spent enormous sums of time, money, and lives in efforts to improve the ANA’s capabilities—a difficult task to achieve given the dysfunction and systemic corruption throughout much of the Afghan government. It is unclear which NATO countries would provide the additional forces; the U.S. currently has over 8,000 troops in Afghanistan in a ‘train and advise’ role, as well as a significant Special Operations Forces (SOF) presence that is separate and focused on counterterrorism.
Since 2001, the rationale behind U.S. operations in Afghanistan has been to destroy the al-Qaeda presence in the country, denying al-Qaeda or any other group the ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from where complex plots against the U.S. could be planned. After 15 years, al-Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, and General Nicholson testified that the risk of terrorist groups using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to plan attacks in the case of a U.S. withdrawal was definite. The new Trump administration has yet to say much about Afghanistan, but it is likely to review and possibly revise troop limits set by the Obama administration. During the course of operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. has had up to 100,000 troops in the country and spent hundreds of billions of dollars. As such, it is uncertain what an increase of just several thousand troops in a training and advisory role would accomplish. The history of the international effort in Afghanistan is one of sporadic gains against a backdrop of sustained declines in security. The past year saw a record number of Afghan civilians killed in the conflict; both the civilian population as well as Afghan security forces have paid a terrible cost for years.
For the U.S., the fight in Afghanistan has always consisted of two distinct yet intertwined efforts: a counterterrorism campaign by U.S. Special Operations Forces and intelligence officers in partnership with local liaisons; and a broader ‘train, advise, equip’ effort. The former has had success against al-Qaeda, and more recently against the nascent presence of the so-called Islamic State. Nonetheless, the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks remains a potent force in Afghanistan, despite more than 15 years of pressure. The large U.S. train and equip effort has been frustrated by the reality that without significant and sustained improvements in governance and other societal factors, improvements to the Afghan military are futile.
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