By Josh Zuckerman
To most Americans the war in Afghanistan is a frustrating riddle. Despite being routed by the vastly superior American military, the Taliban has managed to drag the war on for 14 years. Like many wars of the present, the one in Afghanistan has not produced a clear-cut winner or loser. America is clearly “winning” if such a term can be used, but it is clear the Taliban is not defeated and could take many parts of Afghanistan over should the US withdraw. The situation has left many politicians and Americans asking what should be done. That is certainly a complex question. The answer to which, I believe can be found in reviewing what went wrong in Afghanistan in the first place.
When approaching the issue politicians have tended to focus on troop levels and timetables but have shied away from articling a prevailing narrative of how the war has progressed thus far. The war in Afghanistan is a classic case of pursuing a military strategy that is unable to fulfill the over arching political and strategic goals a war was meant to accomplish. The impetus for the war was simple, defeat the Taliban, institute a democratic government, and destroy Al-Qaeda. Our military strategy on the other hand was to use around 20,000 soldiers and our air power to aid the North Alliance in winning their 10 year long civil war with the Taliban. This combination successfully defeated every Taliban strong hold by spring of 2002.
The problem with the strategy, however, is that there is a huge difference between taking over Afghanistan and removing all the terrorists and establishing a stable government. In order to complete these goals far more troops would have been required. Military scholar Antonio Guistozzi estimates in his book Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, that about 200,000 soldiers for a five-year occupation would have been needed. The Bush administration, however, did not want a prolonged occupation, a decision that would cost the US dearly. From 2002 to 2006, much of the Taliban’s strong holds in rural Eastern and Southern Afghanistan went unoccupied and ungoverned after 2002. The Eastern districts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, did not have occupation forces until 2006. During this time the Taliban regrouped and infiltrated districts throughout the country by murdering tribal elders and intimidating Afghans working for the government.
In other words, the decision not to occupy Afghanistan at the start of the allowed the Taliban to recover from its losses and remove government control from vitally important areas. It was clearly a delusion to think the newly formed government could over night amass an effective government bureaucracy and occupation. The disastrous repercussions of this began to be felt during the Taliban resurgence from 2006 to 2009.
Since 2006, the US has essentially been fighting this new Taliban, or neo-Taliban as Guistozzi calls it. The strategy of this phase, the surge and the drone strikes, has been highly publicized. While the strategy has worked to degrade the Taliban’s capabilities, it is no replacement for a prolonged counterinsurgency that allows for a strong government presence throughout the country. A good way to think about our progress is that we have weaken the Taliban as a fighting force but have not created the security needed to have effective central governance.
Sitting in 2014 the question is where to go from here? After reviewing the narrative of the war the answer seems pretty simple, stay until the Afghan military is strong enough to conduct a prolonged counter insurgency. This seemingly simple answer is not well articulated to the public because American politicians’ minds seem to revolve around what our military can do right now to bring a decisive result. The fact is since increasing our troop levels to 200,000 is out of the question the only thing to do is wait for the Afghan military to be strong enough to defend itself. The good news is that throughout the surge the Afghan military has steady grown from just a few thousand in 2001 to over 200,000 thousand. This means the end is in sight but this significant progress is not enough to justify a US withdraw at the present. In others words, if you wondering how the war in Afghanistan is going, look at the strength of the Afghan National Army to find your answer.
Photo Credit: Flickr user The U.S. ARMY 6.28.2007