…the number of troops in Afghanistan is not a concern for most Americans—many hardly realize US troops are still there.

In the Spring of 2019, as I prepared for what would be my fourth deployment to Afghanistan, I received a string of mixed messages from friends and family. Their questions and comments ranged from “why go there? It’s just another unwinnable war like Vietnam,” to “gosh, I didn’t even realize that we still had troops in Afghanistan.” As a military officer and a historian, I take several messages from these reactions. First, Americans default to recent or traumatic events in history—in this case Vietnam—to inform their opinions. Second, the number of troops in Afghanistan is not a concern for most Americans—many hardly realize US troops are still there.

It is time to reframe how America views the mission in Afghanistan, and history can help. Americans should stop talking about whether the United States can “win” the war. “Victory” in Afghanistan is not a vanquished enemy and a ticker-tape parade. Instead, it is a political settlement that guarantees Afghanistan is never again used as a platform to launch terrorist attacks. Americans should view the efforts in Afghanistan as a long-term international stability and counter-terrorism mission.

The current US and Taliban agreement calls for a US military exit in May 2021. This agreement assumes that the Taliban can be a trustworthy negotiating partner and will participate in a compromise government. In time this may be possible, but getting to an acceptable agreement will take years, if not decades, and political and military leaders should plan for the long haul.

The United States is still traumatized by its Vietnam experience, and unfortunately, Vietnam often becomes the natural default when Americans look to history for precedent. Hardly a week passes that prominent leaders or journalist do not make a public comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam. One newspaper even produced the “Afghanistan Papers,” an apparent attempt to score a journalistic victory akin to Vietnam’s infamous Pentagon Papers. These shallow comparisons affect public opinion and can ultimately influence policy. Vietnam was terrible for the United States, and national strategy leaders should learn from it, but they should not base policy decisions exclusively on this experience.

The esteemed historian Sir Michael Howard encouraged us to study military history in width. By width, he meant “over a long historical period.” “History does not repeat itself,” but national security professionals can benefit from the study of many past wars to draw out trends. Learning from history implies building instincts and broad knowledge of past conflicts that can help leaders predict outcomes.

Honoring Professor Howard’s call to look at history in width, national security professionals should dedicate more study to other so-called “long-wars” that ended better than Vietnam. Stability, Foreign Internal Defense, and peace-enforcement missions that go on for many years are not unfamiliar to the United States or its allies. The United States has been in Korea for over seventy years. The United Kingdom has been working towards peace in Northern Ireland for over 100 years, and US support to Colombia’s government recently helped that country defeat the primary guerrilla group that it had been fighting for over 50 years. While a detailed description of these conflicts is not possible here, there are clear trends worth noting. 

First, peace negotiations take time—often generations—and several iterations. In Northern Ireland, for example, it took a series of agreements, including the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. These failed, but they served as necessary steps in a conflict not ready to transition from violence to politics. The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement set the path to peace, but it would take until 2007 to reach a power-sharing arrangement that solidified the partnered government in Northern Ireland. Likewise, this first iteration of talks between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban will likely fail as neither side is yet ready to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace; but the talks are an essential step.

Another important trend is that a dominant military presence with a robust intelligence capability is necessary until both sides have renounced violence in favor of politics. Professional military and police were required to convince the resistance in Northern Ireland and Colombia to agree to ceasefires. Similarly, the North Koreans and Chinese only agreed to negotiate in 1951 after suffering casualties at a rate of ten-to-one compared to the South Koreans and Americans.

Likewise, an international military presence is required to pressure the Taliban, ensure they keep their promises, and to disrupt terrorist groups in the region. There is a clear linkage between the Taliban signing the current agreement and the number of casualties they sustained during the 2019 fighting season. Throughout the summer, fall, and winter of 2019-2020, the US and Afghan militaries increased offensive operations against the Taliban, dropping more munitions and killing more Taliban fighters than in any year since 2010, when the Americans had over 100,000 troops in the county.

The United States will also need a small force to hold the Taliban accountable if they violate the peace agreement. Events in Helmand Province during October 2020 provide a good example. As peace negotiations progressed, the Taliban launched an offensive in Helmand, forcing more than 5,600 non-combatants to flee their homes and move to government-controlled urban areas. In response, the United States supported an Afghan-led counter-offensive that inflicted over three-hundred insurgent casualties and reversed the Taliban’s momentum. Taliban leaders came to the negotiating table and agreed to suspend attacks in Helmand. 

The primary objective of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a platform for international terrorists is still at risk.

A continued American military presence is also needed to root out terrorist groups. On May 19, 2020, the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Team reported that the Taliban is still closely affiliated with Al-Qaida. During the last week of October 2020, Afghan Special Forces, likely aided by US intelligence, killed Abu Muhsin Al-Masri in Taliban-controlled territory in Gazni Province. Al-Masri was an Al-Qaida propagandist and senior lieutenant to the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri, and on the FBI’s most-wanted list. The primary objective of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a platform for international terrorists is still at risk.     

Another important historical trend is that US diplomats and their international partners will need to pressure both sides towards peace. It took President William Clinton’s open criticism of the UK’s human rights record and US recognition of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s political arm, Sinn Fein, before the involved parties found a compromise. In South Korea, the United States had to pressure the recalcitrant leader Syngman Rhee to agree to a ceasefire in 1953. Rhee only relented after the United States guaranteed to station troops in South Korea. The international community will have to pressure and reassure the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in a similar manner, and having forces present will increase influence.

  Having international cooperation is vital to success in Afghanistan, and one cannot discuss Afghanistan without including Pakistan and NATO. Pakistan contributed to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table but has been duplicitous with the United States over the life of the conflict. Pakistani support to the Taliban is an obstacle to moving the Taliban away from violence, but a hasty US exit from Afghanistan will only make the problem worse. If Pakistan doubts the American commitment, it will increase support to the Taliban as an insurance policy for its influence if Afghanistan’s government falls. The United States and the international community must keep pressure on Pakistan using all of the instruments of national power—primarily economic, but not ruling out military in Taliban sanctuaries.

NATO plays a critical role in Afghanistan and has committed to sustaining funding for the Afghan security forces through 2024. NATO member nations lead several of the Train, Advise, and Assist Commands. Their presence adds legitimacy to the mission, decreases the burden on the United States, and helps pressure the competing sides to negotiate. NATO will stay if the United States leads.

The historical examples sighted in this essay are anecdotal and should be explored in greater depth by policy-makers. The point is that there is a deep history of successful peace negotiations at the end of long wars, and there is hope for Afghanistan if the United States remains committed. There are reasons for optimism. There has not been a coalition casualty caused by hostile fire since February 8, 2020, and the US recently reduced its troop numbers in Afghanistan to 2,500. While the Taliban have made military progress in sparsely populated rural areas, the Afghan government controls all large and medium population centers.

The Afghanistan National Army and Police are becoming a more professional force. The younger generation of officers who entered after 2001 are emerging into the senior ranks, and the Northern-Alliance warlords are starting to die off. Recently, the security forces demonstrated professionalism when they remained neutral during the nine-month political struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. The Afghan Special Operations Forces and Air Force are making notable progress, as demonstrated in the recent Al-Masri raid.

With 2,500 military personnel deployed and few recent casualties, the American presence in Afghanistan has already reached a sustainable level. According to a survey conducted in October 2019 by the University of Maryland, when there were 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, more Americans supported maintaining the number of troops (34%) than decreasing that number (23%). Few Americans realize that there are almost six times as many US troops in Korea today (approximately 28,500) compared to Afghanistan. Acknowledging the different context in Korea, it is notable that a long-term military commitment to support foreign wars is not new in American history.  

A reliable international funding stream and small advisory effort will keep the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in control of the population centers, and rapid cuts in the next year that would likely accompany an American withdrawal could be detrimental. As a point of comparison, the Najibullah Administration that remained after the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 only fell in 1992 when the Soviet Union could no longer give financial support. The American anthropologist, Thomas Barfield, argues that this is not unique to the Soviet experience and instead the “basic lesson . . . is that while insurgencies have been effective at getting foreign troops to leave Afghanistan, none have succeeded in toppling a national government that has a strong international backer.”

Patience and a clear international military and financial commitment are necessary to find an acceptable peace settlement in Afghanistan. American leaders should ignore statements that Afghanistan is just another Vietnam and instead look at history in width when considering options. Western nations have succeeded at similar missions in the past, and the current peace talks are the first step in a long process. The United States should reframe the effort in Afghanistan as an enduring stability and counter-terrorism mission, rather than advertise how quickly it wants to leave.

Colonel Thomas Spahr teaches strategy and military history at the U.S. Army War College. He recently completed a twelve-month tour in the Resolute Support Headquarters, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Afghan National Army Commandos stand in formation waiting to be greeted by Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Yasin Zia and Resolute Support Commander Gen. Scott Miller in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 3, 2020. Resolute Support is a NATO-led (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and institutions.

Photo Credit: Spc. Jeffery Harris

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5 Comments

  1. Thom, enjoyed the read. A couple of questions for you about what it will take to succeed. As you noted, in some ways there are already clear successes, especially if you reset what “victory” means and focus on the long game. Likewise, if you accept the many failures of agreements as part of a longer process, achieving the success becomes more possible, because no one event failure is a trigger to completely abandoning the project. What I would suggest that also needs to be done, that I didn’t see much of beyond an acknowledgment of the issue- the information campaign in the U.S. The citizens- the tax payers- seem to not understand the long game argument, the comparisons to other places where we’ve stayed for 50 years- and there seems to be no concerted effort to inform and solicit their support. Or perhaps they just don’t believe it is in our best interest. A whole of government/all instruments of national power approach to U.S. participation in Afghanistan that achieves what you propose, in my mind, needs a major effort to explain, tell the story, highlight some of the key points you made and make a convincing argument to our citizens that this investment is in the best interest of the U.S. Do you think that this long game can be played without the education and pitch to our citizens? What might that information and solicitation of favorable public opinion look like?

    1. Dana,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the information war–in the U.S., internationally, and in Afghanistan–is arguably more important than any battle we could ever fight. A wise boss once told me “we must overcome the idea that war is a physical problem. It is not. War is a cognitive problem.” On a positive note, this past year (during my fourth deployment to Afghanistan) I witnessed U.S. leadership in Afghanistan exert more energy towards the information war than nearly any other effort. I encourage you to follow “USFOR-A Spokesman Col Sonny Leggett” @USFOR_A on Twitter and you will see what I mean.
      In response to your questions about educating our citizens while playing the long game, I think the attention span of the American populace depends on the cost (fiscal and casualty). When soldiers aren’t dying, most Americans hardly know the war is still going on. Educating the populace is the right thing to do, but they have to want to listen, and most citizens and politicians do not have the bandwidth to think about all of the U.S. deployments.
      When they occasionally do listen, I think that more Americans that not believe that we should continue to invest in Afghanistan, especially if the cost is relatively low (as reflected in the U of Maryland poll I cited). According to a recent DOD report to Congress, the Afghan-Pakistan border region has the “highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world.”(“Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” DoD 1225 to Congress, Dec 2018) When considering a complete withdrawal, the question I struggle with is “What happens next, and is this better?” The answer is much more than the Afghan government falling to the Taliban. First, it includes an even bloodier civil-war and a humanitarian disaster as the Talibs seek their revenge. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would quickly find a comfortable sanctuary, and the fall of Afghanistan’s government would embolden radical Islamists worldwide. Finally, the failure would damage American prestige in the global great power competition with Russia and China and remove the American presence from a critical region of the world.
      I acknowledge your point on the American political system’s difficulty playing the “long game.” However, I believe it is the best option from where we are today, ideally at a decreasing cost.

  2. There are vast differences between Afghanistan and Korea, Ireland and Columbia. First, Korea, Ireland and Columbia are nations — the great majority of the people there share a common language, culture and religion, and the great majority identify themselves at the national level (i.e., “I am Columbian,” “I am Irish”). In each case, the governments were seen as legitimate (not to be confused with popular) by the great majority of the people in each country. And in each case, the governments of South Korea, Columbia and Northern Ireland were eventually able to protect the great majority of their populations from meaningful daily contact with the rebel groups. It was when Columbia’s population shifted from 80 percent rural in the 1930’s to 80 percent urban in the 2010’s that Columbia was able to isolate and protect more than 90 percent of its population from contact with the FARC and as a result the FARC movement starved politically and died. Furthermore, South Korea had no internal insurgency, while the rebels in Columbia and Northern Ireland had no meaningful external sanctuary. In contrast, more first languages are spoken in Afghanistan than in all of Western Europe. It is one of the most fragmented and ethnically diverse countries on earth. It is not a nation and probably never will be in the political science sense of the term. The government is not seen as legitimate by a majority of the population, and the government controls and protects only 48 percent of the population according to the Long Wars Journal, and the rebels have cross border sanctuary in Pakistan and Iran. Furthermore, the Najibullah example is not really relevant — the Mujaheddin groups which opposed the communist Najibullah government were fragmented and greedy, and the Soviet-provided financial support went to bribe them into not attacking the government. When the Soviet money ended and the bribes stopped flowing, they attacked and destroyed the government. The Taliban has shown consistently it cannot be bribed into not attacking the government — or bribed at all, as the popular rural preference is for Taliban justice, not government courts, which are seen as corrupt. In short, none of the political building blocks for a stability are present in Afghanistan, and none of the prerequisites for success in suppressing an insurgency (national identity, government legitimacy, population protection, and no external sanctuary) exist in Afghanistan. If the United States withdraws its troops, the government will eventually fall to the Taliban. The annual attrition rate of the Afghan National Army has never been less than 32 percent in any year since 2002, and recruiting is becoming increasingly difficult, as virtually all of the ANA’s recruits come from the rural areas (over 98 percent) and the rural areas come increasingly under Taliban intimidation and coercion. Without U.S. support, this is not sustainable in the long term. There are very good reasons for not leaving Afghanistan, but the debate on how to re-frame U.S. long-term support to the Afghan government should not be predicated on any illusions about the outcomes in other historical examples.

  3. For a proper understanding of the “long war,” one must, I suggest, not see this in terms of Afghanistan or our current time alone. Rather, the “long war” — that the U.S. is engaged in today — this is best understood in terms of the political, economic, social and value changes that, since at least the 17th Century, have routinely and continually been required; this, so as to accommodate the ever-changing demands of capitalism, free trade and foreign investment. From this such perspective, one can clearly see that the revolts against the political, economic, social and value changes demanded by capitalism, etc. — undertaken by conservative groups in the Great Middle East today (see Sep 11, 2001) — these such revolts are now mirrored by similar revolts being undertaken by conservative groups in the U.S./the West also (see Jan 6, 2021). In this regard, note that the term “extremism” is now being applied to the more active members of BOTH of these such conservative groups currently. In support of my such argument, consider (a) the following fundamental understanding of capitalism and (b) its constant, consistent and, indeed, never-ending “costs:”

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.” (From the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)

    “In any case, the argument for capitalism was based on long-term collective interest, an argument with little appeal to those left unemployed by the process of ‘creative destruction’ so central to capitalism, as entrepreneurial innovation led to the obsolescence of existing forms of production and those employed in them.” (From the book “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought,” by Jerry Z. Miller, in the section therein on Joseph Schumpeter.)

    “All in all, the 1980s and 1990s were a Hayekian moment, when his once untimely liberalism came to be seen as timely. The intensification of market competition, internally and within each nation, created a more innovative and dynamic brand of capitalism. That in turn gave rise to a new chorus of laments that, as we have seen, have recurred since the eighteenth century: Community was breaking down; traditional ways of life were being destroyed; identities were thrown into question; solidarity was being undermined; egoism unleashed; wealth made conspicuous amid new inequality; philistinism was triumphant.” (Also from the book “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought,” in this case, from the section therein on Friedrich Hayek)

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    Thus, by “re-framing” our domestic and foreign policy “missions” in the manner that I attempted to do above, one might say that an effort to define “success” — and/or “victory” as these such matters — this is a fools errand.

    Why? Because in the “long war” that I describe (with the help of Schumpeter, Gilpin and Miller) above, capitalism requires constant and continuing “creative destruction” — which will ALWAYS be challenged by conservative groups both here at home and there abroad.

    (Thus, the “wars” — to overcome the obstacles created by “conservatism” both here at home and there abroad — these such “wars” should never be expected to “end.”)

  4. This page is time to reframe how America views the mission in Afghanistan, and history can help. In that period , the operation in Afghanistan would drift back toward an attrition .his study investigates how human security manifests itself in the context of Afghanistan and explores the factors that promote and impede its development.

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