16 Years in Afghanistan

It is incumbent upon the president to explain what is at stake and how we can emerge victorious.

Todd Johnson · Oct. 17, 2017

Last week marked the 16th anniversary of the United States’ military and political involvement in Afghanistan, and sadly, there is no end in sight. The counterinsurgency operation has been at best a draw, and considering the amount of blood and treasure that has been expended, a tremendous disappointment for a nation that spends on more on its military than the next 10 nations combined.

More distressing than the lack of tangible progress on the ground is the lack of congressional input into the decision-making process. The latest news emanates from the Senate, where the Republican-led chamber recently voted down a proposal from Senator Rand Paul to sunset the current authorizations for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Paul, an avowed critic of the U.S. operations in the Middle East, voiced the concerns of many Americans when he stated that the original authorizations no longer are applicable to the changing dynamics of the battlefield. He also railed against his colleagues for allowing “a perpetual war until the end of time.” His measure failed, 61-36, and was followed a couple of days later by the Senate’s 89-9 decision to fund a $700 billion dollar defense budget.

The peculiar decision-making in Washington, DC, hasn’t been relegated only to the halls of Congress. The Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, was quoted at last week’s AUSA Conference saying, “We are training, advising, and assisting indigenous armies all over the world, and I expect that will increase and not decrease.” His statement was surprising for many reasons, primarily because the U.S. government’s (primarily the Defense Department) record of building indigenous forces in Afghanistan has been undistinguished.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) report, released in September, not only was the United States government unprepared to build an Afghan army and police force in the early 2000s but its efforts in the interim have “lacked a comprehensive approach to SSA [security sector assistance] and a coordinating body to successfully implement the whole-of-government programs necessary to develop a capable and self-sustaining ANDSF [Afghan National Defense Security Forces].”

And while it’s true that the Trump administration has underwritten a new set of rules of engagement (ROE) that allow U.S. forces to “employ air power without a requirement that the intended objects of attack be ‘proximate’ to U.S. forces or U.S. advised Afghan forces,” it isn’t clear how this new set of tactics will facilitate the American mission of building Afghan security forces capable of defending their country.

Since Trump took office, the pace of airstrikes against the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan has reached a seven-year high. However, these strikes and new ROE also make it more likely that non-combatants will die and as a result create more fighters willing to engage U.S. advisers and Afghan forces on the ground. Quite simply, the tactics aren’t nested with a cogent national strategy and that means billions of dollars will be wasted in the future.

It is incumbent upon the president, his secretary of defense, and the rest of his national security team to be up front with the American people and explain what is at stake in Afghanistan and how we can emerge victorious, however that is to be defined. It’s important that success be achieved soon because our nation’s Armed Forces are going to be facing a critical manning issue in the very near future.

It was recently reported that the vast majority of American 17-24-year-olds (71%) can’t meet the minimum criteria for service in today’s Armed Forces. And, according to the Army Recruiting Command, while there 33.4 million Americans between the ages of 17-24, there only 136,000 who are interested in service and meet the basic requirements. Simply put, there aren’t going to be enough people to fight “forever wars.”

After 16 years, something needs to change, and soon. Republics weren’t meant to fight prolonged wars and if the United States wants to continue being the primary international power its leadership must either decide to go all in for the mission in Afghanistan or withdraw. Our country deserves better than to be involved in a stalemate and only time will tell if the executive branch and Congress are up to the task.

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