The Afghan War of Attrition: Peace Talks Remain an Extension of War by Other Means

By Anthony H. Cordesman

If the U.S. has any real strategy in Afghanistan, it seems to be fighting a war of attrition long enough and well enough for the threat to drop to a level that Afghan forces can handle or accept a peace settlement credible enough for the U.S. to leave. After seventeen years of combat, no one at any level is claiming that enough military progress has been made in strengthening the ANSF enough for it to win. The most favorable claims seem to be that the ANSF are not losing, may someday become able to win with U.S. support.

No one is making any serious claims about success at the civil level in terms of politics, governance, and economics. Hope for the civil side seems to rely on the theory that if you attempt enough reform plans, one may eventually work. This is a literal triumph of hope over experience.

Even with direct costs that now seem likely to exceed one trillion dollars, more than 2,200 dead, and more than 20,000 wounded in action, the U.S. commitment is as open ended as ever. The U.S. is still appealing to its allies for aid and troops, and there is no agreement over whether enemy progress is expanding the area where it has control or disputes control with the Afghan government remains a subject of debate.

Limited Progress in Shaping the Afghan Forces is Not Enough

The U.S. and allies do seem to have made real progress in improving Afghan security forces, even if no one can yet predict when they can stand on their own – or will need less money, fewer advisors on the ground, and less air support. A sharp increase in U.S. combat air support, sending advisors forward to the Afghan equivalent of the battalion level, expanding the number of elite Afghan counterinsurgency forces, and creating more specialized and effective U.S. advisors and trainers have all had a positive impact. It has also sharply limited U.S. casualties and costs.

The problem is that this level of military progress has yet to show that it can guarantee that Afghan forces can hold every major population center, much less defeat the Taliban and other threats. It is unclear that most Afghans feel more secure, or that the Taliban and other threat forces are becoming discouraged enough to quit. The U.S. has taken a harder line toward Pakistan, but it is unclear that this has had any serious impact. Iran and Russia now seem more willing to work with the Taliban, and the continuing Taliban and ISIS attacks even in major Afghan cities do seem to be further undermining Afghan popular confidence in their security.

Losing the War by "Winning" the Peace: Afghanistan vs. Vietnam

There are deeply disturbing parallels between the current situation in Afghanistan and the time in Vietnam when the U.S. seemed to be "winning" by creating South Vietnamese that could enforce the "peace" the U.S. negotiated with North Vietnam after the Tet offensive, a massive bombing campaign, and years of "peace" negotiations. The North Vietnamese understood that they could keep fighting and win once the U.S. left. Some of the U.S. policymakers involved in the negotiations did fully understand the risks, but a majority probably did not. They thought they had won a war by agreeing to terms that lost it.

For all the differences between the wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Vietnam, there are other grim parallels. The U.S. underestimated the outside support North Vietnam would continue to receive. It sharply overestimated how well the South Vietnamese forces could hold on. There was a near denial of how badly divided the Vietnamese government was, how corrupt and ineffective the government was at both the civil and military levels, the level of economic strain on the country and government, and how ineffective the shell of a democracy was in actually motivating and uniting the people.

The Civil Side is Much Worse Off than the Military

Just as there are many competent, honest, and patriotic Afghans in both the civil government and the security forces, there were many similar Vietnamese. But, the overall structure of politics and governance was deeply divided and corrupt, the economy favored a narrow part of the total population, and far too many Vietnamese had divided loyalties. The military side of the war had serious problems, but the failures on the civil side were far deeper.

This lack of civil progress in Afghanistan gets only limited attention, but may actually be as more serious challenge than the military one. The U.S. at least has the shell of a strategy on the military side. Rhetoric about "conditionality" on the civil side, and the economic failures of a deeply divided civil government, seems to be just that: hollow words glossing over negligible real-world progress.

Unlike Afghanistan, the South Vietnamese government at least had the shell of unity, there were no major warlords, and the divisions between groups like South Vietnam's Buddhists and Catholics were limited compared to Afghanistan's sectarian, ethnics and tribal differences. If one compares the mess that the Afghan central government has become, the impact of Afghan flight to major cities to seek security and jobs, and World Bank and IMF warnings about the Afghan narco-economy; the civil side of Afghanistan is far worse than Vietnam was before its collapse.

Peace Negotiations as the Extension of War by Other Means

And, this brings up two other case studies that are a warning about the current situation in Afghanistan, and the growing U.S. effort to "win" a war of attrition by negotiating with the Taliban. Like Vietnam, the civil wars in Cambodia and Nepal are scarcely copies of the situation in Afghanistan. Both, however, are case examples where the rebels used peace negotiations and a role in government to win a war they could not win on the battlefield.

Today's Cambodian government – and its increasingly authoritarian dominating political party – are to some extent the postwar result of successful political manipulations by the kinder and gentler parts of the Pol Pot regime. As for Nepal, a much smaller cadre of Maoists insurgents were able to manipulate the peace to become a leading faction. If war is sometime said to be an "extension of diplomacy by other means," both cases warn that peace negotiations are equally often an extension of war by other means.

"The Only Way to Win is Not to Play"

This raises a set of dilemmas that no one in U.S. politics may wish to openly address, but that the U.S. will still have to live with. The only way to quickly end the U.S. role in Afghanistan may be the equivalent of declaring victory and leaving: reaching a peace settlement with the Taliban that is far more likely to succeed than fail.

The alternatives are to let the war drag on and on in something close to its current form hoping that the Taliban will give up first. Or, to fund a far larger U.S. effort that both steps up the level of military support and that forces the civil side of the Afghan government to be far more united, honest, and effective.

None of these options are particularly attractive in terms of domestic U.S. politics, but a certain amount of honesty is needed even in war. Declaring peace and leaving is likely to be no different than declaring victory and leaving. About all that can be said for such a choice is that the world has already more or less accepted the fact the U.S. may not win in Afghanistan. Moreover, one way to win this new "great game in Asia may be to stop playing. It will be Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian states" that inherit the resulting mess. It is hard to see how they will be any less likely to lose by "winning."

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.