November 30, 2012

How to Fight in Afghanistan With Fewer U.S. Troops

Kimberly and Frederick W. Kagan’s Nov. 23 commentary, arguing for a force of 30,000 or more Americans in Afghanistan after 2014 [“What we’ll need in Afghanistan,” Sunday Opinion], is fundamentally wrong. Although their goals are sound — preventing terrorist attacks from the region on the United States — the writers’ logic and conclusions about the resources required are flawed. It is possible to protect U.S. interests across that region after 2014 with a force in Afghanistan of 10,000 or fewer American troops.

The United States has two vital interests in that part of the world: preventing terrorist attacks on this country and its allies, and preventing nuclear weapons or materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. Protecting these interests after 2014 will require the United States to be able to launch precision military strikes from this region. But it will not require tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Scores of news reports describe robust U.S. counterterrorism campaigns across the globe. The United States employs drones, special operations forces and strikes with precision munitions across the Horn of Africa, in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Philippines and probably in several other less public places. All of these nations also face some levels of deadly insurgent and terrorist attacks but counter them largely with their own forces, while small teams of Americans focus on counterterrorism and limited advisory missions.

In other words, the United States is already performing the very counterterrorism tasks required in Afghanistan across the globe without committing 15,000, 20,000 or 30,000 troops or the huge logistical and advisory overhead that the Kagans describe as vital. Moreover, in no other U.S. counterterrorism effort are the host-nation security forces the formidable size of the Afghan force — more than 350,000 soldiers and police.

After more than a decade of training and tens of billions of dollars of equipment, these Afghan troops should be fully capable of holding off roughly 30,000 Taliban. Defeating — or at least containing — the Taliban after 2014 is a job for Afghan forces, not Americans.

Although the U.S. surge produced many battlefield gains, it did not bring about any significant improvement in the country’s governance or pervasive corruption. These intractable shortcomings are unlikely to be affected by any number of additional U.S. troops before or after 2014.

The Kagans’ proposal for an open-ended commitment of more than 30,000 U.S. forces would conservatively cost taxpayers more than $30 billion a year. That would far exceed the combined current U.S. assistance to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan.

Defending our vital interests does not demand a long-term force of this size in Afghanistan, any more than it does today in Yemen, Somalia or Mali. What is required after 2014 is assured access to bases when needed, the maintenance of robust intelligence networks, a modest security cooperation effort and a small special operations force for counterterrorism and counter-proliferation response. Covert programs such as drones will continue to play important, less visible roles. And more robust mobile forces can remain on call outside Afghanistan, should circumstances warrant bigger strike operations of short duration.

Carefully limiting the tasks of U.S. troops inside Afghanistan could permit them to remain poised for missions in support of vital U.S. interests, rather than becoming drawn into securing supply routes, large bases and Afghan territory. A smaller, less conspicuous U.S. force would have the important advantage of being less obtrusive to the Afghan people and thus would be more likely to have the support of the Afghan government.

The Kagans’ logic for insisting on a slow drawdown is tenuous at best. The more troops we have in Afghanistan, the more casualties we will sustain. Those sacrifices would be painful but endurable if overall troop levels translated into lasting effects. But there is little evidence that maintaining 68,000 troops in Afghanistan for one or two more years, and 30,000 afterward, would ensure any lasting, measurable effects on the combat- readiness of Afghan forces, Taliban capabilities or terrorist havens in the region. A greater U.S. casualty toll is a high price to pay for such ephemeral effects.

At year 11 of our war in Afghanistan, it’s time to consider a smaller enduring U.S. presence as the new endgame. It’s also time to craft a steeper ramp to draw down the size of the U.S. presence. This would serve to both shift sizable Afghan forces more rapidly into the fight and to accelerate Afghan political leaders taking ownership of their war against the Taliban. The costs to the United States of supporting an endless ground war in Afghanistan are not merely unwarranted but strategically unwise. It’s time to consider all options.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno was overall commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is a senior fellow and senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, where Matthew Irvine is a research associate.