The Nuts and Bolts of Leaving Afghanistan
The American people are waiting for the date when their Commander-in-Chief announces to the nation that the thousands of U.S. troops now in Afghanistan are in the process of downsizing their operations, packing up, and redeploying stateside. And the American people would be perfectly reasonable in demanding it. Since major coalition operations began in October 2001, the U.S. and our coalition allies have withstood extensive combat and powered through the blood, sweat, and tears. 3,568 American and coalition troops have given the ultimate sacrifice. At a price tag of $745 billion and counting according to the Defense Department, the United States has poured far more investment into Afghanistan than officials in Washington could have imagined when the first munitions were dropped.
Ultimately, the most ideal way to facilitate an orderly and deliberate U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan is to end the war entirely. The Trump administration’s decision last year to talk to the Taliban and engage the insurgency's leadership in negotiations was a giant step in the right direction. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his team have devoted months of their lives traveling throughout the region and participating in six rounds of intensive discussions with their Taliban counterparts in Doha for precisely this purpose.
But even if those talks are successful in reaching a comprehensive and inclusive political agreement, the work for the United States, the Afghan government, and its allies in NATO won't be over. The violence in Afghanistan is highly unlikely to end after an accord is signed. Spoilers such as hard-core members of the Taliban or Islamic State militants will seek to undermine the peace and challenge the legitimacy of the Afghan state. If the Afghan security forces are unable to preserve a general sense of order and stability in the country, the very same people who signed a peace deal may reassess their position and review more violent options.
Continued international financial and security support to the Afghan army and police will thus be vital in ensuring Afghanistan remains inhospitable to terrorist groups that wish to attack the United States and its interests. As has always been the case since this long war started, competent and sustainable Afghan security forces will be essential to the U.S. strategy of transitioning security responsibilities completely to the Afghan government.
As a former career U.S. Air Force officer who has served in numerous leadership, logistical, and political-military adviser posts during my career—including as Commander at the US Air Force Expeditionary Center Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst—I can testify first-hand on how important a highly organized and reliable logistics system is for any joint force. Such capacity is especially important for a force like the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which is responsible for a defending an expansive country with difficult topography, porous national borders, and treacherous terrain. The success of operations in Afghanistan is dependent on a capable logistics infrastructure stretching from the headquarters in the capital to the outposts in the field. Indeed, an army simply can’t fight properly, let alone sustain itself, if the ammunition, arms, air support, reinforcements, and medevac don’t get to where they need to go.
Unfortunately, despite tens of billions of dollars in U.S. and coalition financial assistance towards fielding this capability, the ANDSF still has quite a way to go in building a logistical enterprise. The force has experienced challenges in the higher functions of organizing, training, and equipping a military unit. Recruiting and keeping those recruits in the active component is increasingly difficult as combat on the ground becomes more intensive. The rate of Afghan casualties is unsustainable; according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, approximately 45,000 Afghan troops have been killed since 2014, an average of 845 deaths every month between September 2014 to January 2019 when those comments were made. It’s safe to say that a portion of these casualties are likely a result of Kabul’s maintenance, readiness, and logistical problems.
As the Defense Department reported to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “MOD and MOI logisticians require persistent (coalition) advisor attention, and their problems conducting national logistics planning remain a vulnerability to the mission.” The systemic corruption across and within the ANA and ANP ranks only exacerbate these problems, as equipment meant to sustain troops in the field is stolen and resold for profit on the black market.
To be fair, at least some Afghan political and military officials understand the extent of the issue. Kabul’s National Maintenance Strategy is designed to improve the ANDSF’s overall capacity and capability as an independent, fully prepared, and lethal force. Yet nothing in Afghanistan moves quickly—the NMS will take time to work, which means coalition advisory support will be instrumental in backfilling the Afghan security forces in the interim.
The U.S. and its NATO allies should not underestimate the criticality of advisory teams in order to keep the peace. Air advisors are particularly effective in this regard—as a low-cost force multiplier, these units enable developing countries like Afghanistan the ability to augment U.S. operations, increase interoperability, and enhance the forces’ credibility among the people it protects. Without these assets, an already overwhelmed ANDSF would be further pressured and put at a disadvantage when security threats or other contingencies suddenly arise.
An important lesson learned from on-going operations in Afghanistan is that investing in the training and employment of a small, dedicated force with the ability to work by, with, and through its Afghan counterparts is a far more cost-effective and risk-averse way to achieve U.S. strategic objectives than deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops in perpetuity. The former is financially responsible, providing the Afghans with an incentive to continue investing in their own capabilities; the latter is an expensive, thin security blanket full of holes.
The overarching U.S. national security objective in Afghanistan is to protect and defend the American people from acts of terrorism emanating from that country. Washington can accomplish this objective without doing the same thing over and over again and continuing a war that has gone on without end. At the same time America’s diplomats hammer it out with Taliban officials at the negotiating table, America’s military planners must be attuned to the nuts-and-bolts of what makes a military lethal, organized, and professional.