Four Ways Forward in Afghanistan: What the United States Could Do With More Troops

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After a five-month-long interagency review process, senior officials have recommended that U.S. President Donald Trump send several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The request is in line with proposals from General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and makes the consensus recommendation of about 3,000-5,000 more troops. But troop increases alone do not a strategy make. Scholars as varied as Stephen Walt and Michael O’Hanlon have argued that, to arrest rapid deterioration on the ground, the United States needs to situate the troops in a coherent strategy.

At present, at least four plausible strategies can be distilled: state building, reconciliation, containment, and basing. Each strategy contains distinct goals, its own theory of victory, and unique costs and risks. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations muddled or vacillated among all four options, which generated incoherence and sometimes worked at cross-purposes. The Trump administration must weigh each strategy individually and make a hard choice based on achievable ends and acceptable tradeoffs. And it must do so before it puts more American and NATO troops in harm’s way.


A strategy of “trying to win” against the Taliban, as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have urged, demands at least some state building so that Kabul can withstand the insurgency and compete for public support. This strategy will involve building up core Afghan state capabilities, principally the security forces and governing institutions, so that they might be “capable of standing on their own” and defeating the Taliban. The broader, debatable assumption is that only a capable Afghan state excluding the Taliban can prevent international terrorist organizations from posing a threat to the United States or expanding across South and Central Asia.

The state-building strategy would deploy U.S. troops down to the brigade or battalion level to guide and mentor Afghan units and to signal an enduring commitment to the Afghan state. Retired officials have also argued that keeping troops in the fight will better ensure political support for aid to Afghanistan.

Of course, the costs of this strategy emerge in lives lost, time, and strategic focus. Seeing results could take a decade or two. And there is no guarantee that the American people and future administrations will exhibit the patience required to see this strategy through to its potential yields. Furthermore, estimates of annual U.S. spending in Afghanistan range between $25 and $50 billion, and increasing the current troop levels will only add to the price tag.

Further, if the United States commits to a state-building strategy without requiring concessions from the Afghan government, it would do little to redress the massive moral hazard problem in Afghanistan. Kabul elites continue to avoid hard choices about rampant corruption and political infighting, and they run high risks with a politicized, patronage-ridden, ineffective security force, knowing that they are protected by a United States always ready to bail them out.

Outside of these practical costs, continuing the war in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future implies significant strategic opportunity costs. Attention and resources would be siphoned from other regions, such as East Asia and Eastern Europe. A commitment to Afghanistan would reduce U.S. flexibility to cultivate its strategic relationship with India, considering Pakistan’s leverage over outcomes in Afghanistan.

Another concern with this strategy is that it risks a costlier collision with a number of regional actors that do not believe military defeat of the Taliban is the only path to stability. China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, for example, could counter U.S. efforts with greater financial, material, and territorial support of the Taliban to further bleed American forces and their Afghan allies.

Some proponents of the state-building strategy still hope that U.S. resolve alone will trigger Pakistan’s cooperation, while others call for coercive or even kinetic action to pressure Pakistan to alter its strategic calculus in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan has significant leverage to counter such a strategy. It can cut off the American ground and air lines of communication into Afghanistan, which remain vital components of the American presence in the country. It could also cancel robust intelligence cooperation with the United States and NATO and abandon dialogues on nuclear safety, export controls, and crisis management, which have bolstered nuclear risk reduction in South Asia.


The reconciliation strategy intensifies military training and kinetic efforts to secure a negotiated peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United States and Afghanistan would use gains on the battlefield to ensure that the Afghan government can negotiate from a position of strength. 

Read the full article on Foreign Affairs here.

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