…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