Today Politico‘s Susan B. Glasser has a piece that reports that the United States is all set to stay the course in Afghanistan, except for one thing: a President who is not on board.
Trump refused to sign off on the plan they approved, the sources said, instead sending it back to his national security team demanding more work. And on Tuesday, the president made clear just how dissatisfied he was. In what were pretty much his first public comments on Afghanistan during his six months in office, he told reporters before a White House lunch, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” On Thursday, headed into a Pentagon meeting, he was similarly cagey. Asked about more troops for Afghanistan, he replied only, “We’ll see.”
The unity of opinion in favor of staying the course in Afghanistan is unsurprising, given that the bureaucracies involved have spent 17 years doing just this. It is hard to turn the ship of bureaucracy under the best of circumstances. In this case, a whole generation of young military officers and public servants have grown grey in this mission. Of course they are reluctant to walk away from what is literally their life’s work.
Nevertheless, there are two very good reasons to review whether or not we should continue in Afghanistan. The first is that, in addition to the obvious costs of blood and treasure, there are significant opportunity costs that only grow more relevant given the changing strategic picture. The second is that the basic strategy at work in Afghanistan over these many years has no chance of success.
Americans are familiar with the casualty figures and the financial cost of the war. What is less well understood is the strategic opportunity costs that we are paying, year after year. Being tied down with large numbers of forces in Afghanistan means that we cannot deploy those same forces to another crisis elsewhere should one develop. That is worth considering with North Korea threatening war, Iran threatening war, war in Yemen, war being threatened around Qatar, Russia pushing through Ukraine having already seized the Crimea and South Ossetia, and an aggressive China pushing out in every direction.
More than that, all those troops in Afghanistan have to be fed and supplied. Given the large numbers of troops, only a small amount of that can be done by air. The rest has to be done by land. There are only two land routes that provide the right kind of supply lines available to the United States. One lies through Pakistan, which shut it off to protest the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to protest American air strikes, and has threatened to do so to stop American drone strikes. Pakistan can threaten to shut off this route any time it does not approve of American behavior.
The only alternate route runs through the Central Asian States north of Afghanistan — and to get to them, any food and supplies has to first pass through Russian-controlled territory. This is especially true for supplies by railroad, the best method of moving those quantities of goods and services over land. All the northern railroad options lead to Russian controlled territory.
Thus, strategically, our deployed forces in Afghanistan are also potentially hostages held by Russia and Pakistan. Independently each of those nations can exact a serious cost from the United States for anything we do that they would prefer we did not do. Should they act jointly, they could close off our supply lines completely enough to imperil our forces. Making such a joint action more likely, Pakistan has just become a full member of the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO sees itself as foremost a security organization, making joint action on security measures quite likely in the future.
Our deployment in Afghanistan it thus a set of handcuffs on our ability to challenge Russia as a global competitor, or to push Pakistan to deal with its own problems. As those nations come together through the SCO, our own forces could be held hostages against us.
In addition to this strategic opportunity costs, there are substantial personnel and logistical costs. Military units that deploy over and over, especially special operations forces, are tied down by the Afghan mission. They grow worn out in these repeated missions, and they must be replaced at significant cost in training. It has long been the case that we do not have nearly as much as we need, and are pushing our best very hard all the time in order to get as much as we can.
“In 2004 we were able to execute 61 percent of the missions we were asked to do,” he said. “In 2010, we could only do 47 percent of what we were requested to do, and we believe we’ll maintain about that 50-percent level out to around 2012, which is as far as we can really see. So optempo (operational tempo) is really a big issue for us.”
Elaborating on deployment versus dwell time, Fuller said that while the Army was working hard to achieve a one-year to two-year ratio or better, he didn’t see any USASOC elements getting to that level.
In addition to this human cost, there is also the wear and tear on equipment that cannot be used elsewhere and must likewise be replaced. While small compared to the other costs, it is not negligible.
In the current strategic environment, it would be wise to ask whether all of these opportunity costs are worth paying for whatever gain is to be had in Afghanistan. But without at least a major change in strategy, there is no gain to be had.
The Afghan Strategy is Fatally Flawed
If you put the American counterinsurgency strategy into plain English, it would be this: We stop insurgencies against approved systems of government by raising the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of participation in the system high enough that former insurgents have too much of a stake in that system to rebel against it. In other words, it is not just about killing people who are fighting the system. We also do good for people so that they have a positive reason to want to be part of the system. We might build them improved water pumps or treatment facilities, roads, factories, or get them jobs. They need a stake in the system that is better than what they can get by fighting.
In Iraq, that strategy had every potential for success — indeed, I would argue, it did succeed. The Surge was about raising costs, but also about paving a way for those who wanted to rethink their insurgency to benefit if they came over to our side. Violence collapsed by 90% in 2007, and continued to drop to negligible levels by 2009. By 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden said that Iraq would be remembered as one of the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishments. And indeed it would have been, if they had not that year precipitously withdrawn the American forces who had been serving to guarantee that the former insurgents received the fair treatment they were promised.
That strategy could work in Iraq, though, because it had a number of things that Afghanistan lacks. Iraq has a seaport, for one thing, from which its goods can reach global markets. Iraq has developed highways that lead directly to relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Iraq has oil, which is not a small matter. Iraq has Mesopotamia, which produces rich agricultural trade goods like oranges. Iraq had an industrial base including factories and power plants that were at or near function, although some needed work after the Saddam era. Iraq also had a fairly highly educated population that could take a factory job, or learn to keep up and repair industrial machinery. Iraq could thus be tied into the global economy, and that would provide the big benefits — the stake — that would ensure former insurgents had too much to lose to go back to war.
The United States spent a lot of money in Iraq during the Surge, but it wasn’t going to have to spend that kind of money forever. Had we not walked out prematurely, so that we’d been there to keep the peace between the factions long enough for them to build trust, Iraq could have been brought into the rest of the world. People would have made money by keeping the peace, and working for prosperity.
Afghanistan lacks all the necessary conditions for that strategy to work. Even now, there is almost no infrastructure on which an industrial economy could depend. There will never be sea ports. Highways lead not to wealthy neighbors, but to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan. Only the last two of those have wealth, and both of them use that wealth to encourage parts of the insurgency.
Finally, there is the opium trade. Ninety percent of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan. Criminal goods are the only goods that Afghanistan produces that are marketable, given the logistical hardships of getting those goods to market from a place like Afghanistan. In Iraq, we could argue plausibly that giving up the insurgency could mean growing wealthy in peace. In Afghanistan, there is no viable economic model that can compete with smuggling — of opium, of minerals, and of people.
For that reason, our basic counterinsurgency strategy is fatally flawed. We cannot expect it to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, not in four years or forty years. Either another counterinsurgency strategy must be developed that can be effective in a landlocked country that benefits chiefly from criminal enterprise, or we must admit that we will continue paying these strategic opportunity costs in return for no final benefits from victory.
It may seem odd to think that respected generals like James Mattis and H. R. McMaster would not know better on a military matter than Donald Trump, who never worked in any related field before becoming President. Nevertheless, he is not wrong to be asking for a review. The costs of the war are much higher than is commonly admitted, and the probability of seeing benefits commensurate with those costs is not high. At minimum the President should demand a new war plan that shows some probability of bringing about success given Afghanistan’s particular economic realities. Absent such a plan, it may be time to consider a big change rather than staying the course.