As the Trump Administration wrestles with locations, numbers and missions for American combat deployments globally, one perennial has re-emerged near the top of the list: Afghanistan. Famously called the “Graveyard of Empires” to reflect the successive defeats of Alexander the Great, the British Raj, and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan continues to vex US military planners and political figures leaders. After perhaps a $1 trillion investment and thousands of casualties, another “ask” for troops is particularly unwelcome.
The question on the table is simple: how many troops do we need in Afghanistan? When I was the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO for global operations, I had strategic responsibility for the fighting in Afghanistan and a total NATO force of over 150,000. Over my four years in command, I had four brilliant Generals working for me commanding those NATO forces: Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, John Allen and Joseph Dunford, the latter still on active duty as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With each of them, I spent considerable time honing our requests for more troops, apportioning the burden among the 28 nations of NATO and, sadly, writing condolence letters to the families of thousands killed on my watch. But we generally succeeded in wresting control of much of Afghanistan from the Taliban, safeguarding the election that delivered President Ashraf Ghani (an enormous improvement over his volatile predecessor Hamid Karzai), and turning over the fight to the Afghan security forces we financed and trained.
As we downsized our presence considerably around the time I left command in 2013, the number we all agreed as a sustaining force was roughly 20,000, still a decrease of nearly 90%. The idea was that with 20,000 troops, we could maintain four major regional headquarters around the country, a sizable “training mission,” reasonable special forces strike capability, and of course sufficient self-protection for all US personnel in country. That number remains roughly correct, but the overall force level for several years has not met the 20,000 goal — today we have fewer than 14,000. With an additional 3-5,000 requested by General Mick Nicholson — the current 4-star commander and a superb, experienced hand — we have a reasonable shot at stemming the increasing momentum of the Taliban and achieving a better outcome.
The Administration and the Congress should support a 5,000-troop increase, apportioned equally between US and the rest of NATO forces, hopefully with significant contributions from the UK, France, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Norway and Denmark — nations who have considerable experience in Afghanistan. While far less likely, we should also approach Canada and the Netherlands. Indeed, all of the NATO nations have good reason to be very forthcoming to prove to President Trump that NATO is the relevant organization he finally admitted it was a month or so ago. All these commitments must be in place as the nations head into President Trump’s first NATO summit.
The reasons for approving this increase are quite clear. First, it is a tactical necessity. Over the past two years, the Taliban have been steadily encroaching on Afghan government control of territory, and by some estimates they are now in a position to influence the population in 40% of the country. While Afghan Security forces number over 300,000 and have shown real mettle in many places, they are taking significant casualties and still require effective mentoring down to at least the Battalion level. That means an increase in our overall troop strength is necessary.
Second, the emergence of an Islamic State element in Afghanistan is very concerning. While they have largely been unable to galvanize either the population or create cooperation with the Taliban, they have conducted a series of disruptive terror attacks and add further chaos to an unstable system. A larger NATO force can blunt their impact.
A third key reason is to create political capital that can be very helpful when some portion of the Taliban (who are not a holistic organization to say the least) eventually come to the negotiating table. We will never “win” militarily in Afghanistan, nor can we kill our way to success. Sooner or later we will need to bargain, and a stronger NATO force on the ground will give us better leverage.
Fourth, the additional forces send a signal to the Pakistanis, who are still somewhat playing a “double game” of overtly cooperating with NATO, but in reality supporting some elements of the insurgency. This commitment will tell Pakistan we intend to continue to work for a successful outcome in Afghanistan, and will hopefully encourage them to force the Taliban into negotiations.
Which brings us to another key point: what does success look like? Afghanistan is not going to resemble Singapore anytime soon; but it can have a functioning democratic government, general control over much of its borders, the ability to minimize impact from the insurgency, armed forces with high public approval, and a reduction in both corruption and narcotics — the latter two issues posing a longer term threat to the nation than even the Taliban. Getting to that point of success will require security and thus the additional forces.
The good news, such as it is in terms of this “Graveyard of Empires,” is that the United States and NATO are hardly empires. We have no desire to rule Afghanistan, control its not insignificant mineral wealth, defend its borders or guide its destiny. Our mission remains ensuring the nation is relatively stable and does not return to providing a protected shelter for terrorists threatening the United States. This small troop increase makes sense in that context and represents the right move by the Trump team.