Outlasting the Taliban to Achieve Victory in Afghanistan
The Thirty Years War? The Hundred Years War? The Forever War? More than 17 years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to depose the Taliban regime, the United States has failed to crush the resulting Taliban insurgency and cannot withdraw without allowing them to return to power. Political frustration is building. The United States is questioning an ongoing presence. United States Senator Rand Paul recently said, “[W]e’re in an impossible situation. I see no hope for it.” Among the many depressing aspects of the situation is the $13 billion being spent each year in maintaining approximately 16,000 American service members in Afghanistan. The lower estimate for maintaining one service member in Afghanistan is $500,000 per year. More realistic estimates put the number at $1 million per year. (In 2018, to maintain the current force of 16,000, the United States spent $13 billion on U.S. forces and $5 billion on Afghan forces. This provides a cost of approximately $812,000 per U.S. service member per year). The 175,000 strong Afghan National Army (ANA) costs about $5 billion per year or $28,000 per member.
Presently, the United States and NATO maintain discrete military units in Afghanistan. These units operate against the Taliban and train ANA troops. Each year, significant numbers of ANA troops desert. A bigger problem is tens of thousands of ANA “ghost soldiers.” According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, these “soldiers” are just names on the ANA’s rolls enabling corrupt high-ranking Afghanis to steal their salaries. The present system of giving money to the Afghan government is not creating an ANA that can ever achieve victory.
Major combat operations in Afghanistan are conducted with the United States providing the bulk of the combat power. Taliban units regularly attack and ambush ANA units and then withdraw before sufficient combat power can be deployed to surround and destroy them. The United States can temporarily dominate any location, but Afghanistan is too large and U.S. and ANA forces too few to control all of Afghanistan. Compounding this problem is the refuge provided by Pakistan’s Tribal Areas where U.S. and ANA forces cannot operate. Unless the United States is willing to commit for an extended period, the Taliban will never be militarily defeated. Even if the United States were willing to accept the high level of casualties required to drive the Taliban out of large areas of Afghanistan, once the United States’ political will to sustain significant casualties ends, the Taliban, having waited out this “surge” operation in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, would return. Negotiating peace with the Taliban is pointless. They know that without Western aid and troops, the Taliban can reoccupy Kabul and control Afghanistan.
How can the United States solve the problems of high cost, waste, corruption, and long-term political unsustainability? The keys to victory in Afghanistan could lie in creating an Afghan military force that, without significant Western troops, can be sustained indefinitely. Such a force would never eradicate the Taliban, but it would deny them the opportunity to achieve victory by waiting for the United States to leave.
Could the United States perhaps learn how to accomplish these goals from the British? For almost 200 years Britons and Britain were a dominant force in the Indian subcontinent. More than two million Britons are buried there. Many of those two million were members of the British Indian Army and their families who died of natural causes. Perhaps, here is a solution to the ongoing and insoluble dilemma of how to stabilize the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan while reducing the level of American casualties and expense.
The British experience in India is instructive. After defeating the Bengali Nawab and his French allies in 1757, a private company, the British East India Company (BEIC) took control of India. The BEIC created a large well-disciplined army with British Officers and NCO's commanding units formed exclusively from "native" enlisted men. This British Indian Army defeated a country-wide rebellion in 1858 and maintained military control of India, a country four times larger with ten times the population of Afghanistan, for more than 190 years. Winston Churchill’s early military career included “butcher and bolt” operations in the areas that are currently referred to as the “Tribal Areas” of Pakistan. In short, the BEIC and the British confronted problems that are similar to those faced by the present day Afghan and United States governments.
How might this template be applied to the situation in Afghanistan? The British model could be applied to Afghan units with American officers and NCOs who would serve in Afghanistan for at least twenty years, bringing their families with them. (In the current system American officers serve for a single year and rotate home.) In a New Model Afghan Army, officers would learn their units, learn the battlefield, and learn the culture and language of their troops. As with any war-time army, promotion would be rapid for good officers. At the close of 20 years of service, just as in the U.S. military, an officer could retire with a pension. Afghan soldiers would be paid reliably and also be able to retire with a comfortable pension after 20 years of service. Afghan enlisted soldiers would be paid by American officers eliminating corruption and “ghost soldiers.” An Afghan soldier working towards a pension has a significant personal stake in the survival of the Afghan government.
This system has already been proven in modern times. British Gurkha units, composed of soldiers recruited from Nepal and commanded by British officers, provide some of the most effective soldiers in the British Army. Ten Gurkha battalions in Hong Kong secured the area from the People’s Republic of China for more than 40 years. After their service, pensioned Gurkha soldiers return to their Nepali villages to live comfortably as well-off and respected members of the community.
With the reduction in numbers of American enlisted personnel, the cost of this force would be a tiny fraction of an equivalent Western force. It would also help establish a cohesive Afghan military loyal to a stable Afghan government. Because it would be sustainable for a very long period, the Taliban must recognize that they couldn’t just wait out the Western armies and, inevitably, all but the most radical would eventually either negotiate or give up the struggle.
The funding reduction is also significant. Funding a 400 member New Model Army battalion with 12 American officers and NCO’s would be $24 million per year. As opposed to the $400 million currently required for a U.S. battalion deployed in Afghanistan. This level of funding might be politically sustainable as the current level surely is not. In the British Indian Army, “natives” were promoted and joined the NCO and lower officer ranks, further reducing the costs of each unit. As Afghanis fill these roles, costs decrease and stability increases. As Afghans rise in the ranks, they would share a vested interest in the ongoing success of the government.
Many will likely object to this proposal arguing that the United States has no appetite for establishing a colonial army, the Afghan government would object to surrendering its national army to foreign control, and loyalty of Afghani enlisted personnel could not be guaranteed in light of the current “green on blue” violence. However, there are precedents for this situation found in the post-colonial 20th century. Specifically, the Omani and Jordanian armies were commanded by British officers when they defeated insurrections. Similarly, American General Douglas McArthur commanded the Philipino Army. Similar problems were present in these earlier situations and were overcome.
It is hard to imagine anything less harmful than the current state of affairs. The situation demands new thinking. Would this approach result in a stable pro-Western Afghanistan? It seems clear that the present course never will. While a Western-led New Model Army will not eradicate the Taliban, it removes the Taliban’s ability to prevail by merely waiting for the United States to leave and will leave a result no worse, and likely much better, than the current situation.
Malcolm E. Whittaker is a former candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Malcolm is an engineer and patent attorney in Houston, Texas.