Last week marked a major inflection point in the war in Afghanistan. NATO decided to suspend joint operations with Afghan forces below the battalion level, while the last of the 30,000 U.S. "surge" troops returned home. After eleven years of conflict, the United States and its allies now stand at a fork in the road. They can continue to press ahead with an increasingly risky advisory effort, where the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops would continue widespread partnering with Afghan forces. Or they can start shifting now to a much-reduced military effort aimed at supporting the Afghan military in combat differently while protecting broader U.S. interests with smaller counter-terror forces.
Starting in the spring of 2009, the United States poured nearly 70,000 additional forces into Afghanistan, tripling its previous troop levels. The "surge" represented the last increments of this growth, capping an effort to counter major escalations of Taliban strength and aggressiveness in the preceding years. Newly arrived U.S. forces moved into areas where few Americans had previously set foot. These included Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which is a significant poppy growing area but where only 3 percent of the Afghan population lives.
The Taliban largely fell back in the face of this onslaught, but quickly adjusted tactics to emphasize high-profile suicide attacks, ever-larger roadside bombs, assassinations of Afghan officials, and most recently, a surge of insider attacks. These so-called "green on blue" attacks have proven both costly and disruptive to coalition forces, killing more than 50 troops so far this year. Aimed squarely at Western publics, these attacks have provoked outrage in the United States and among its NATO allies.
If popular tolerance for battlefield deaths was tenuous, there is near zero patience with attacks from the very Afghan forces the allies have been working with over the last eleven years. Senator John McCain, not known for wavering in the face of military setbacks, noted last week, "I think all options [should] be considered, including whether we just withdraw early rather than have a continued bloodletting that won't succeed." Although he backed down from that comment the following day, McCain's visceral response signals an important shift among those who have long supported greater U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Another defense hawk, Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, was even more direct when he said, "We're killing kids who don't need to die" and "I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can."
The Obama administration now faces two dramatically different choices. It could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings. Yet once partnering is resumed, the inevitable next insider attack -- and the next, and the next -- would likely render this option politically untenable and markedly worsen the existing discontent at home and growing concern among troops partnered with Afghans in the field.
Alternatively, it could keep the current restrictions in place -- that is, no partnering or advisory work below battalion level -- while accelerating the draw down of U.S. and coalition forces. Special operations forces might be exempted from these restrictions, but conventional forces would focus on turning areas over to their Afghan counterparts more rapidly. At the same time, efforts could be ramped up to train English-speaking Afghan officers to replace American advisers as the frontline links to U.S. air power. American jets, helicopters, and drones would continue to be available to Afghan forces for rapid response when engaging the Taliban in close combat.
With this option, the United States could substantially draw down its forces -- perhaps to 35,000 troops -- by the summer of 2013, when Afghan forces are already scheduled to take security responsibility for the whole country. U.S. special forces could more rapidly assume the lead of American efforts, a step that is already planned for 2014. A deep reduction in U.S. conventional forces would make clear that the Afghan security forces --and President Hamid Karzai -- were unequivocally taking ownership of the war. Afghan infantry battalions would replace U.S. infantry battalions in securing villages and maintaining areas that have already been cleared of Taliban fighters. And the Afghan people might see civilian casualties from coalition airpower a bit differently if those strikes were called by Afghan troops, rather than by Americans.
U.S. military leaders often privately express concern about whether the Afghan forces will be able to stand up to the Taliban after most coalition forces are gone. Best estimates put the Taliban strength today at about 30,000 fighters. By next month, Afghan army and police forces will have reached their target strength of 352,000. In the next few years, they will be supported by unchallenged U.S. airpower, drones capable of downloading video or missiles, and adept counter-terrorist strike units. If the Afghan security forces can't hold off the Taliban under these conditions, NATO has far bigger problems in Afghanistan than returning a handful of advisors to the battlefield can solve.
The United States perversely finds itself today in the long-sought position of having achieved its broad strategic objectives connected to the attacks of September 11, 2001: Osama bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda is disrupted and diffused, and the Taliban no longer dominate Afghanistan. Yet eleven years on, the United States now finds itself implacably at war with the Taliban, a local insurgency with no discernible global objectives. The strategic logic of this costly effort in a world where U.S. military power is stretched thin is painfully elusive. It is time to put President Karzai and his troops in the lead and more rapidly draw down U.S. military forces to a sustainable, modest level of support. It is now time -- finally -- for Afghans to take full ownership of their conflict with the Taliban.