Gen. John Nicholson, who commands the American-led international military force in Afghanistan, recently made headlines when he called for “a few thousand” more troops and a deeper American commitment to the fight in Afghanistan in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
This echoes the calls from a number of other analysts, as well as from senior government officials. The recently departed national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — who once served as the senior intelligence officer for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan — seemed to support greater commitment to the region. As they say, personnel is policy: Flynn appointed senior National Security Council staffers who called for engagement in Afghanistan to potentially continue another five to ten years. There’s good reason to think these beliefs might be shared by incoming national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, given his substantial investment in Afghanistan.
Questions will obviously be raised about allied contributions and the domestic political appetite for intensifying America’s longest war, but a more fundamental question deserves serious scrutiny: Could a renewed U.S. commitment of additional troops help turn a corner in Afghanistan?
Proponents support such an effort to demonstrate our resoluteness, extend the Afghan state’s control, and to sustain an effective counter-terrorism mission. The impact of new investments hinges on a number of moving parts: the coherence of the Afghan state writ large, the capacity of Afghan security forces, Taliban resilience, countermoves by major regional powers, and, most importantly, the strategic behavior of Pakistan. These variables have long plagued U.S. war aims and remain likely to prevent success, despite expanded U.S. commitments.
1. Can the Afghan government capitalize on military gains and become coherent and sustainable?
Recommendations about troop levels are effectively tactical. More U.S. troops could alter the military conditions on the ground, just as they did earlier in the war, but they do nothing to shape the more consequential political dynamics. Even congressional leaders arguing for expanding military freedom of action recognize the Afghanistan problem is essentially “political in nature.” Even when military operations pressured the Taliban, the Afghan government has been unable to seize on this momentum and govern effectively because it has been too divided, incoherent, and corrupt.
The extra-constitutional National Unity Government is teetering on the brink, and its legitimacy hangs in the balance. By a two to one ratio, Afghans overwhelmingly believe the country is going in the wrong direction — the lowest level of optimism surveyed since 2004. A year ago, U.N. officials warned that discord and dysfunction threatened national government survival. Today, Kabul is mired in yet another contentious battle of fractious elites. The disarray is punctuated by political infighting, competing factions, “ethnic politics and opportunism,” and a former president maneuvering behind the scenes for power. Afghan politics is war by other means. The unity government parties remain deadlocked for the same reason that parties go to and remain at war: a miscalculation of each other’s relative strength.
Against this dire backdrop, the legitimacy of Afghan national institutions continues to wane. Confidence in national institutions and satisfaction with democracy are at their lowest ebb in ten years. For the first time, a majority of Afghans do not express confidence in the national government. Perceptions of high national corruption have roughly remained constant for a decade, but perceptions of local corruption experienced in daily life have jumped by 10 to 20 percent.
With outright military victory increasingly rare in modern counter-insurgency campaigns, Afghanistan’s endgame likely requires a negotiated settlement. Yet the government’s political disarray erodes its bargaining power and encourages the Taliban to fight on in hopes of an outright victory.
2. What effect would this have on Afghan security force capabilities?
Nicholson implied that Afghan-led military pressure would serve as the principal strategy to “incentivize reconciliation” over a five-year period. While increasing the number of U.S. train-and-advise forces conducting this mission might conceivably help at the margins, a number of enduring structural flaws and gaps in the Afghan security forces remain. These issues could continue to hamper their battlefield effectiveness.
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