What If the U.S. 'Pulls the Plug' on Afghanistan?

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The U.S. may be approaching a crucial decision concerning its military involvement in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis says U.S. activity there won’t end anytime soon. The question is, will President Trump stick with a plan that does not promise victory?

First, understand the mission. After 2014, Afghanistan became responsible for its own security. The Obama drawdown removed U.S advisers from regular Afghanistan units. NATO’s Operation Resolute Support started in 2015. Technically, it is a “non-combat” mission where security assistance advisers train and go out on missions with the Afghan Army.

When President Trump assumed office, Afghanistan was slowly slipping away while the U.S. focused on not losing Iraq. Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan attacks steadily increased to the point where Afghan forces controlled only about 60% of the country by summer 2017. Secretary Mattis convinced the president to try the same tactics that he’d implemented in Syria: letting the U.S. and other NATO advisers go right up to the battle’s edge with the Afghan forces.

The 2017 mini-surge approved by the White House in mid-2017 added 3,500 U.S. forces and redeployed A-10s and other airpower assets to Afghanistan. Airstrikes also targeted financial assets like opium production facilities, mirroring the strategy used in Syria and Iraq where strikes targeted mobile oil refineries and oil smuggling lanes.

The strategy in Afghanistan has a deeper layer. In Iraq, starting in 2005, the U.S. quietly built the Iraq Counter-Terrorism Service. Numbering around 10,000, this mixed force of Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds led the fight to push back ISIS. The idea was also to create elite, loyal forces under the control of Iraq’s prime minister. The force was trained to connect with the advanced intelligence, aerial surveillance and fire support provided by the U.S. and Coalition partners. When President Trump approved allowing U.S. advisers to accompany them closer into battle, they were able to morph into an effective force working against ISIS, although they took casualties in the process.

The U.S. hopes for a similar result in Afghanistan. But a professional security force needs supporting infrastructure and capabilities. To that end, the Pentagon awarded private contractor PAE the contract to support what is called the National Maintenance Strategy for vehicles. This strategy, among other things, provides training and mentoring to the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) in maintenance, supply chain management and warehouse support across 25 locations in Afghanistan. The ANDSF operates a mix of old Soviet armored fighting vehicles and U.S. equipment, including some 8,500 Humvees and hundreds of M117 Mobile Strike Force Vehicles.

The long bet is on building up Afghanistan’s air force. Along with developing a professional Afghan military, the strategy also relies on airpower both to take the offensive and to enact a more fundamental shift in Afghan political culture. From a military perspective, the Afghan Air Force is developing into a lethal advantage for the ASNDF over the insurgents, a strategy that has worked well for the Coalition from 2001 onwards. It is also shifting from Russian and Eastern European aircraft to more U.S.-built platforms.

Flying and maintaining U.S. A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters and controlling airstrikes demands training and professionalism and a long-term commitment from Afghan service members. Going forward, U.S. commanders hope a strong, professional air force will also form a bulwark of political stability for the country. But the battlefield situation and the long-term “military in society” experiment depend on the White House not losing patience.

Reports from General Votel at Central Command are upbeat. He even praised the short June 2018 truce, saying it proved all parties, including the Taliban, could stick to an agreement.

Secretary Mattis isn’t promising victory. He said in the spring his aim is to “peel off” Taliban exhausted from fighting. Mattis wants to reduce Taliban strength to the point where Afghan forces can manage their internal security. The difference rests with whether the Mattis tactics that pushed back ISIS in Iraq and Syria can be effective in the mountains of Afghanistan. Also, whether Afghan soldiers and airmen can turn professional skill into a deeper loyalty.

At the White House, the view is different. Trump’s national security strategy centers on shoring up America’s economy, rebuilding the military for peer threats, and attempting to make strong borders a national security issue. There never was a commitment to stay in Afghanistan.

President Trump wonders why America got stuck in Afghanistan and he has been considering pulling out. President Obama felt much the same. Both took their time resetting Afghanistan strategy. For Obama, it was eleven months; Trump took nine. Placed side by side, their Afghanistan speeches from November 2009 and August 2017 are almost interchangeable. They read as if both presidents knew deep down Afghanistan was a loser for the U.S.

Each had reluctantly allowed advisers to make a case for continuing the U.S. commitment. For both presidents, sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan was a long, long way from their policy preferences. Insiders attest that both Trump and Obama lost their tempers over Afghanistan and felt trapped into agreeing to the surges. Neither man was elected to get deeper into Afghanistan.

Scaling back in Afghanistan is not President Trump’s choice to make alone. NATO has consistently supported training missions. Keeping Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists has polished up the fighting capabilities of NATO partners, and other close U.S. allies like Australia. NATO is a battle-tested force, with its top military leaders well-versed in modern warfare due to their time together in Afghanistan. It’s been a good training ground and the experience will serve NATO well for decades.

Should the Administration choose to “pull the plug” on the Afghanistan mission, it will need to continue efforts to build the ANSDF into a professional security apparatus with the appropriate command and control, intelligence, logistics and sustainment capabilities. Also, plans will need to be in place to replace equipment and platforms lost in battle or accidents. So even if the U.S. pulls the plug, it will not be able to completely escape from Afghanistan.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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