4,000 More Troops for Afghanistan? There Could Be Good Reasons Why

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Afghanistan may not be the forgotten war, but it has certainly become the war that the Department of Defense is doing an appalling job of explaining. Even at the best of times, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) public affairs team seems to focus on the ephemeral and public relations exercises, rather than substance. These, however, are scarcely the best of times. If one goes to the Department of Defense web site (https://www.defense.gov/), the Special Report on the Afghan war is long absent.

The last 1225 report on the Afghan War -- issued on June 20, 2017 -- does not mention any increase in U.S. troop levels and ignores any mention of added U.S. forces. It states that,

U.S. Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) currently retains a force posture of approximately 8,400 personnel in Afghanistan, down from approximately 9,800 personnel in 2016, and conducts two well-defined and complementary missions: supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda, its associates, and other terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliate in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K); and training, advising, and assisting (TAA) the ANDSF through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Resolute Support (RS) mission. The drawdown of U.S. forces during this reporting period presented moderate to moderate-high risk to the mission, but the United States and coalition partners maintained sufficient numbers of personnel to conduct the TAA mission at the ministries, ANA corps, and Afghan National Police (ANP) zones.

U.S. Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) currently retains a force posture of approximately 8,400 personnel in Afghanistan, down from approximately 9,800 personnel in 2016, and conducts two well-defined and complementary missions: supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda, its associates, and other terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliate in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K); and training, advising, and assisting (TAA) the ANDSF through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Resolute Support (RS) mission. The drawdown of U.S. forces during this reporting period presented moderate to moderate-high risk to the mission, but the United States and coalition partners maintained sufficient numbers of personnel to conduct the TAA mission at the ministries, ANA corps, and Afghan National Police (ANP) zones.

It seems to almost be deliberately designed to avoid any real assessment of the course of the fighting and providing any details on relative effectiveness of Afghan government and threat forces and the U.S. train and assist mission. It claims progress against ISIS, and provides no rationale for a new U.S. strategy or force posture to deal with other threats:

The ANDSF are generally capable of protecting major population centers, preventing the Taliban from maintaining prolonged control of specific areas, and responding to Taliban attacks. The Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) have proven to be effective at leading offensive clearing operations. While the ANDSF has had success in urban areas, the Taliban have experienced success in controlling some rural areas through exploiting opportunities to occupy cleared areas after the ANDSF failed to consolidate gains and establishing a persistent presence. Continued Taliban attacks across the country, including the complex attack on April 21, 2017, in Mazar-e-Sharif against the 209th ANA Corps headquarters that killed 144 personnel, have weakened public confidence in the Afghan Government’s ability to provide security.

Other nations in the region affect the Afghan threat environment. Attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. Militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, continued to utilize sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Pakistan’s belief that Afghanistan is not doing enough to prevent cross-border attacks, such as a suicide bombing at a shrine in Pakistan’s Sindh Province in February 2017 that killed 72 people, further hampers bilateral relations.

The report clearly sees Pakistan's conduct as a serious threat, but refuses to mention it by name:

General Nicholson, Commander of USFOR-A and RS, assesses that the exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents is the single greatest external factor that could cause failure of the coalition campaign. External sanctuary hampers efforts to bring Afghan Taliban senior leadership to the negotiating table and allows space for terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network to plan coordinated operations against U.S. and coalition forces, the ANDSF, and civilians. External sanctuary allows the Afghan Taliban to rest, refit, and regenerate, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence.

The report is far less frank about the fighting than Secretary Mattis and General Nicholson have been in recent testimony to Congress, where they warned that the trends in the fighting were uncertain and could tilt against Afghan forces. It does not quantify the increase in ANSF casualties or the seriousness of threat attacks, shows no increase in the number of effective enemy attacks by month or type, and states blandly that,

Afghanistan continues to face an externally enabled and resilient insurgency. As Afghanistan enters its third year of full responsibility for the security of the country, Afghan forces have shown determination and continued capability growth in their fight against the Taliban-led insurgency. The Afghan Government retains control of Kabul, major population centers, most key transit routes, provincial capitals, and a majority of district centers. Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to contest district centers, threaten provincial capitals, and temporarily seize main lines of communication throughout the country, especially in high-priority areas like Kunduz and Helmand Provinces. As of February 2017, RS assessed that the Afghan Government maintained control or influence over 65 percent of the population, while the Taliban had control or influence over approximately 11 percent of the population, with the remainder being contested.

The most recent press conference transcript on the DOD website covers a vacuous show and tell with Secretary Mattis dating back to April 24th. The budget sections in the OSD Comptroller web page does provide detailed reporting on the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Syria, but only vague place holder data on Afghanistan. The budget for Afghanistan also is little more than a political fiction – disguising the fact it is being used to avoid the budget caps for what are really baseline expenditures and for a pool of support forces and efforts that include other non-Afghan contingencies.

The Announcement of More Troops for Afghanistan

The June 14th press release that covers "Afghanistan Troop Levels" promises much, but provides no useful content, explanation, or justification:

Yesterday afternoon, the President directed the Department of Defense to set troop levels in Afghanistan. This will enable our military to have greater agility to conduct operations, recognizing our military posture there is part of a broader regional context.

Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the U.S. military and our many allies and partners, horrors on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, have not been repeated on our shores. However, the danger continues to evolve and that danger requires a commitment to defeat terrorist organizations that threaten the United States, other nations, and the people of Afghanistan. For example, ISIS has established a branch, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups remain active inside Afghanistan, and the Taliban continue to pose a challenge to the democratically elected government.

This administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot allow Afghanistan to once again become a launching point for attacks on our homeland or on our allies.

We are making progress in degrading these groups, but their defeat will come about only by giving our men and women on the ground the support and the authorities they need to win.

The delegation of this authority does not in itself change the force levels for Afghanistan. Rather, it ensures the Department of Defense can facilitate our missions and align our commitment to the rapidly evolving security situation, giving our troops greater latitude to provide air power and other vital support. Our core mission will remain the same: to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. We are there to help defeat a common enemy and ensure Afghan forces can safeguard the future of their country.

This decision is part of a broader strategy we are developing that addresses our role in Afghanistan and beyond. We will present this to the President in the coming weeks. We will continue to work with our allies and we will ask more of them.

Working with the Afghan government and our allies and partners, we will achieve victory against the terrorists abroad, protect our borders at home, and keep America safe.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the announcement that the United States plans to send more troops has raised serious questions and doubts. It is unclear where the figure of 4,000 more troops reported by most media sources actually comes from, and totally unclear how they are to be allocated and what their function is to be.

A fair amount of the media reporting seems uncertain as to whether the added personnel will or won't be in combat units. There is little mention of the issues shaping Afghan force effectiveness, the role of airpower is generally ignored. and the civil dimension of the war is almost totally ignored. Most reporting focuses on insurgent suicide and bombing attacks, and the percentage of districts where the Taliban and insurgents are reported to be making gains.

Other reporting has raised the specter of the U.S. military setting troop levels without fully consulting the President. This in part comes from official reporting. The official DOD press reports issued on June 14th that described President Trump's decision to authorize more troops stated that the President had, "delegated authority to manage the number of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis."

The DOD press release did qualify this delegation by quoting Secretary Mattis as saying that,

At noon yesterday, President Trump delegated to me the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan...The delegation of this authority – consistent with the authority President Trump granted me two months ago for Iraq and Syria – does not, at this time, change the troop numbers for Afghanistan... I will set the U.S. military commitment, consistent with the commander in chief's strategic direction and the foreign policy as dictated by Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson...

(Jim Garamone, "President Gives Mattis Authority to Set U.S. Troop Strength in Afghanistan DoD News, Defense Media Activity," Washington, June 14, 2017)

This statement by Secretary Mattis scarcely reflects a presidential decision to granting open-ended authority to the military. Like far too many media reports, it also ignores the role of the National Security Council in reviewing every important war fighting decision. The fact remains, however, that the department sowed the seed of confusion and now has the deal with the result.

The Need for Transparency and a Real Strategy and Plan for the Future

What is needed is full and honest reporting on both the course of the war, the options for the future, and the reasons for the choices the Administration is making. Avoiding substance and anything approaching honest risk analysis simply compounds distrusts and war fatigue and helps those who advocate major cuts in the U.S. role overseas. As noted in earlier Burke Chair commentaries, there also is a good case for a limited U.S. troop increase if they are focused on the right missions and correct the key defects that have plagued the U.S. train and assist mission ever since President Obama focused on withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The timing is also becoming steadily more critical.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, first made a public request for several thousand more troops in early February. It is now late June, and this year's campaign season in Afghanistan is rapidly moving towards its peak. The fighting never ceased in the winter, terrorism is all too clearly on the rise, and new serious enemy offensives are nearly certain. The key problem this presents at the military level is that Afghan forces were never ready for transition when most U.S. and other combat forces left at the end of 2014, they are not ready now, and the existing train and assist effort is almost designed to fail.

As previous Burke Chair reports have also noted, much of this is the fault of the United States. The U.S. made decisions that tried to rush Afghan forces into being and U.S. combat forces out of Afghanistan. These U.S.-led efforts that only really took Afghan force development seriously after FY2011 – a decade into the fighting.

The core aid program for developing strong enough Afghan forces to fight largely on the own -- did not deliver the needed money on the ground until FY2012. (Figure One) It then rushed new Afghan forces into creation with minimal real world combat training. (Figure Two) The commander in charge of training warned as late as April 2011 that,1

“We passed a significant milestone this week - we are now at 50% of our authorized number of Coalition trainers, the highest we've been since NTM-A was activated in November 2009. However, the lack of the other 50% of Coalition trainers/advisors with key skills (critical gaps, in medical, logistics and engineers) threatens to slow progress in ASNF development at the time when we need to be accelerating...We continue to make significant progress growing the fielded forces, yet the development of their supporting logistics system is lagging.

The absence of these skilled trainers and advisors is slowing the development of functional sustainment systems - at echelon above Corps, Army and Police supply depots and training centers--and the indigenous capacity necessary to effectively manage them. ...We continue to maximize contractors where we can but at a significant financial cost. Only by filling our critical shortfalls with the right grades and skills from the coalition can we properly develop a professional, sustainable and enduring logistics system for the ANSF...These trainers and advisors are also central to our anti-corruption efforts and providing the necessary safeguards and oversight to ensure stewardship of our investment.”

Two thirds of the needed trainers were still physically absent in March 2012. Many trainers lacked real qualifications well into 2014, and many trainers were pulled out of the combat unit and forward deployed training efforts after a small number of "green on blue" Afghan attacks on U.S. and allied trainers and personnel.2 The U.S. and allied efforts also greatly contributed to the corruption of the Afghan forces by flooding in money without proper fiscal controls.

Once U.S. and allied combat units were withdrawn in 2014, the entire train and assist mission was destabilized by the fact that deadlines were originally imposed for ending it by the end of 2016 despite repeated warning by many active and retired senior officers. These deadlines have since been waived, but each waiver has left the future uncertain and formally kept train and assist personnel from being embedded forward in combat units and outside the Corps level – at numbers too limited to even fully staff the mission at the Corps level.

The end result was that far too many new Afghan units were formed and were then sent into the field without meaningful train and assist support – which can only come when train and assist personnel are embedded forward and in combat units. U.S. advisors lost situational awareness, influence, and the ability to play key functions -- warning of inadequate officers and leaders, helping inexperienced officers learn how to lead in combat, warning of corruption and failures tom resupply and reinforce, providing practical experience in counterinsurgency, and helping to develop the skill sets needed to properly use airpower.

This put an extraordinary burden on a newly formed and largely in experienced mix of Afghan forces that was suddenly raised to a strength of 352,000 – 157,000 of which (45%) were police and not warfighters – from 2012 onwards. It has forced the Afghans to place a nearly impossible burden on its best and most elite Army and police units, and deprived many other Kandaks of what should have been a fighting chance. This is also still the train and assist mission that will exist unless more troops are deployed.

The FY2018 budget submission does note that its proposed U.S. "force levels do not include potential changes to troop strength in response to the acceleration of the campaign to defeat ISIS." The Secretary has also made it clear that the U.S. train and assist efforts -- and the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan – are under review. However, the numbers the FY2018 budget request now proposes would only keep the total number of U.S. troops at 8,448 in FY2018 versus 9,737 in FY2016 and 8,673 for FY2017

This needs to change as soon as possible if the Afghan forces are to become effective and avoid further reversals in the field. Several thousand U.S. train and assist personnel in the right place -- committed to supporting Afghan forces until they are properly ready -- can make a critical difference. This has already been demonstrated in Iraq and Syria. U.S. supported forces in both countries had critical weaknesses when train and assist was confined to the rear. Both sets of forces were far more effective once train and assist personnel were move forward, and when the U.S. provided air and other fire support. As Vietnam and other U.S. force development efforts have shown, creating effective new forces takes time, new forces need help when they come under pressure, and this requires qualified train and assist support to combat units.

The issue now being debated in the White House is not adding some 4,000 troops to provide a combat unit. It is not a matter of U.S. force quantity. It is U.S. force quality. It is whether to fully end a deadlines-based strategy focused on getting out, and shift to an effective train and assist mission and back it with adequate U.S. airpower -- effectively a "conditions-based" strategy. This is the approach that has worked in rebuilding Iraqi forces, where it became all too clear that train and assist from the rear produced nothing but failure, and outside airpower was critical. It is the strategy that has worked with Kurdish forces in Syria.

There will be tragic costs to some of the U.S, troops that take on this mission. Putting train and assist personnel forward does mean taking some casualties from enemy fire, and an added risk of "green on blue attacks." However, it is all too clear that half measures -- simply keeping today's numbers of troops -- are highly unlikely to work, risk losing whole provinces over time, and will not press the Taliban into serious peace negotiations.

The course of the fighting is only one aspect of winning popular Afghan support for the war. Corruption, political divisions, poor governance, hyperurbanization, and growing poverty rates must be addressed as well. But, if the Afghan forces keep losing and taking high casualties, popular support for the Afghan government will continue to decline, threat influence will increase.

The Afghan forces will not be able to provide that kind of security that will allow economic recovery to take place and the government to become more effective at the civil level. The divided Ghani-Abdullah government will lose both opportunity and hearts and minds at the same time. Equally, the U.S. military in Afghanistan will have to fight on three fronts rather than one: against U.S. political constraints, against weak Afghan governance and forces, and against the actual enemy.

Adding U.S. Combat Air Support

It is equally clear that the United States will need to back the Afghan forces with U.S. combat airpower. Bad as rushing the creation of Afghan ground forces was, trying to create an instant Afghan air force was even worse. Plans for the Afghan air force never included the combat support aircraft needed to deliver the kind of strike number needed by far more capable allied forces, and the Afghan air force is just making its first combat capable light attack aircraft operational.

The number of close air support sorties the U.S. and allied forces flew in 2015 and 2016 were only one fifth of those flown in 2012 – the last year of peak outside combat action. Munitions were only released under urgent Afghan need. Once again, the U.S. train and assist effort in Iraq and Syria has only worked because the United States was willing to use airpower decisively to support Iraqi and Syrian combat forces, and the ratio of Afghan forces to threat forces, and the amount of territory they must cover, is far more demanding than the threat ISIS has posed in Iraq.

Fortunately, this is a case where the Afghan forces do not seem to have to wait as long as they will to get a proper train and assist mission. The limits on such support were relaxed in early 2017.3 Figure Three shows that the U.S. only flew 115 sorties that released strike munitions in February 2016, but flew 200 such sorties in February 2017. The U.S. only flew 58 sorties that released strike munitions in March 2016, but flew 203 such sorties in March 2017. It flew only 62 sorties that released strike munitions in April 2016, but flew 460 such sorties in April 2017, and flew 89 sorties that released strike munitions in May 2016, but flew 328 such sorties in May 2017.

These figures scarcely compare to the number of such sorties in Iraq and Syria -- where the U.S-led coalition flew an average of over 3,500 active strike sorties a month during January-May 2017. They do show, however, a critical level of increase, and it is far from clear that Afghanistan needs the same kind of air activity when it does not have to fight intense urban warfare campaigns.

Winning Support for a New Strategy

If the United States is to succeed in Afghanistan -- either by exhausting the threat or pushing it to the negotiating table, it needs to be willing to support Afghan forces until they become fully combat ready. This means shifting from a deadline/withdrawal strategy and to a conditions-based support strategy, and it probably will take at least till 2020 and may well take several years beyond.

None of this, however, means that such a chang in U.S. strategy, or extension of U.S. aid to 2020 and beyond – should be unconditional or open ended. Meeting General Nicholson's requests should be clearly tied to tight limits on every type of military and civil aid that require the Afghan government, to limit corruption, make key reforms, and provide it is using the aid where it is intended to go and that the result is effective.

Conditionality should be applied to both Afghan military performance, and political and civil performance. It should ensure that corrupt and incompetent Afghan officers and officials are removed. The Afghans will need a grace period of a year or so for political and economic reform, but the United States and its allies should negotiate deadlines that will allow them to "do it their way," but also set clear deadlines and criteria.

The United States should make it clear that it will conduct a public annual review of its commitments to Afghanistan and Afghan performance. it should make it clear that it can and will leave in the face of Afghan failure. If necessary, the United States should make good on such a threat. It should send a clear message to all "partner" states" that they must meet reasonable standards of performance. The United States should never bully its allies, but it also should not be bullied – or let nations slip into the kind of over-dependence that ultimately undermines, rather than aids them.

Finally, the United States should make it clear to Pakistan that it faces a total end to aid, and the imposition of sanctions, if it continues to support the Taliban and tolerate the Haqqani Network. Russia should be told that any end to U.S. sanctions will depend on it not supporting the Taliban, and the United States should reach out to China to make it clear that Chinese cooperation in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan can serve both Chinese and U.S. interests.

Figure One: Afghanistan Security Forces Fund: FY2010-FY2017

(in $US billions)


Figure Two: A Massive Gap Between Trainer Needs and Actual Trainers: 2010-2012


Figure Three: Still Very Limited U.S. and Allied Close Air Support of an Afghan Air Force with Only Token Close Air Support Capability

(As of May 31, 2017)

1 NTM-A / CSTC-A Weekly Update - 24 Apr 11 (UNCLASSIFIED), https://mail.google.com/mail/?shva=1#search/NTM-A/12f8858c223b3ed4

2 Anthony H. Cordesman and Aaron Linn, Afghanistan in Transition, CSIS/Rowan and Littlefield, March 2015, pp. 64-70, https://www.csis.org/analysis/afghanistan-transition; NTM-A, Year in Review, November 2011 to November 2012, p. 24; GAO, AFGHANISTAN SECURITY Afghan Army Growing, but Additional Trainers Needed; Long-term Costs Not Determined, GAO 11-66, January 2011, pp. 23-24;

3 See AFCENT (CAOC) Public Affairs – afcent.pa@afcent.af.mil web site.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images