Afghanistan: Shift to a “Conditions–Based” Strategy or Lose the “Forgotten War”

The Obama Administration’s lack of focus on the Afghan War is symbolized by the fact that it is no longer even listed as one of the “Top Issues” on the Department of Defense’s website. It only gets passing attention on the White House’s website—to the point where the “defense” section still refers to the President as having, “ Developed a comprehensive new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and authorized deployment of more than 33,000 "surge" troops to Afghanistan”—a statement that dates back to March 27, 2009. Another White House Fact Sheet dates back to May 27, 2004 and is entitled “Bringing the U.S. War in Afghanistan to a Responsible End.”

The Department of Defense FY2017 budget request is more up–to–date, and the Comptroller of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has issued a separate budget paper on the war—albeit one that seems to assume that there will be no serious losses, and Afghanistan can keep waiting for an effective air force. The State Department does include the Afghan War in its FY2017 request for Overseas Contingency Funds, but this part of its budget request lacks anything approaching a coherent program.

The Department of Defense’s Defense Budget Overview for FY2017 no longer has a separate Afghan War section, and it says little more about strategy than that the U.S. goal is “Maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan consistent with the President’s drawdown plan.” The short discussion of future resources also makes it clear that the President still intends to phase out as much of the U.S. military presence as possible. It states that, “In October 2015, the President approved plans for a future military presence in Afghanistan in support of the Department’s dual counterterrorism (CT) and train, advise, and assist mission to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The U.S. will sustain up to 9,800 troops through calendar year 2016 before drawing down to approximately 5,500 troops by January 2017.”

What is critical about these numbers is that as the United States phased out its combat forces in 2014, it did so to meet a Presidential deadline that was first announced in December 2009, and that the President then reinforced on May 27, 2014 by stating that,

“At the beginning of 2015, and contingent upon the Afghans signing a Bilateral Security Agreement and a status of forces agreement with NATO, we will have 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we would reduce that presence by roughly half, consolidating our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. One year later, by the end of 2016, we will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, as we have done in Iraq. Beyond 2014, the mission of our troops will be training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al–Qa’ida.”

This process of withdrawal was carried out to meet a policy goal set years before the actual withdrawal. The actual U.S. withdrawal was never seriously tied to the actual conditions on the ground, to the effectiveness of Afghan government forces relative to threats like the Taliban and ISIS, or to the casualties Afghan forces were suffering, and the level of security provided to the Afghan people.

The United States cut defense Overseas Contingency Operations funds from a peak of $114 billion in FY2011, to $105 billion in FY2012, $85 billion in FY2013, $84 billion in FY2014, $53 in FY2015, $44 billion in FY2016, and a request for $42 billion in FY2017. These figures may still seem remarkably high for less than 10,000 men with no formal combat role, but the breakdown made public by the OSD Comptroller shows that only a small portion actually goes to Afghan forces.

The United States also slashed military manpower from a peak of 98,000 in FY2011 to 90,000 in FY2012, and then to 63,000 in FY 2013, 37,000 in FY2014, and a nominal 10,000 in FY2015. It tried to rush the creation of effective Afghan Army, Afghan Air Force, and Afghan Police forces out of a weak and corrupt structure. It tried to do so in spite of the fact that the necessary funding was not provided until 2011, the necessary cadres of advisors—experienced or not—were not deploy until 2012, and the force goals kept increasing in spite of serious problems with attrition and desertion.

The United States did not keep enough military personnel after FY2014 to provide adequate advice to Afghan forces—even at the corps level. The United States made no serious provision to help Afghan combat units—or Kandaks—become combat effective. It only planned to give the Afghan Air Force limited helicopter and fixed–wing combat capability—and made no provisions for keeping the kind of U.S. airpower that has proven essential in supporting Iraqi government forces against a much weaker and less experienced enemy like ISIS. It also did so in spite of the fact that the ISAF command metrics showed that the U.S. surge in Afghanistan produced none of the broad benefits of the surge in Iraq.

If one looks at the data provided by U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), the use of U.S. air power dropped from 345,514 close air support sorties in F2011 to 28,760 in 2012, 21,900 in 2013, 12,978 in 2014, and 4,676 in 2015. The number of sorties that actually released any form of weapon dropped from 34,514 close air support sorties in 2011 to 28,760 in 2012, 21,900 in 2013, 12,978 in 2014, and 4,676 in 2015.

The actual release of air–delivered weapons became more and more restricted in spite of the fact that Afghan military casualties increased to critical levels in 2015, civilian casualties went way up, and the Taliban spread into new areas and scored serious gains. The United States increasingly only delivered airpower when Afghan forces got into serious trouble. The United States did drop as many as 203 weapons a month in October 2015, when Afghan forces faced a serious crisis, but it cut support back to only 30 weapons in February and only released 31 in December. It also cut the number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties in half, and the airlift of supplies to nearly zero.

In the process, what some in the Obama Administration originally thought of as the “good war” became the war the Administration wants to leave behind, and where it seeks to reduce the U.S. effort as much and as quickly as possible. It has not simply withdrawn most combat forces—which the steadily deteriorating security situation shows has been problematic—it is still not shaping a U.S. presence that can give Afghan forces the ability to hold, mature, and win. The U.S. effort is so limited that it is more likely to lose—in very literal terms—than to give the Afghan’s a fighting chance.

This does not mean that a “conditions–based” strategy and level of U.S. forces should somehow return major land combat units to Afghanistan. That option has passed. But providing a full complement of advisors, providing them at the combat unit level for Afghan Army forces and key elements of the Afghan Police, providing limited air–mobile reinforcements to handle emergencies, and special forces and ranger elements to help stiffen key Afghan units would mean something like a maximum of 18,000 military personnel and possibly significantly less. Tailoring any future withdrawals to Afghan success—rather than to arbitrary deadlines—would probably slow such withdrawals well into the next Administration, but it would also give the Afghan’s the fighting chance they now lack.

The same would be true of deploying enough U.S. combat air power so that the Taliban could not suddenly concentrate and overrun Afghan forces. It would also help the Afghan forces in their own offensives. This would probably involve a few squadrons, and possibly some attack helicopter units—but not major U.S. air deployments.

These are not original ideas. They reflect the advice of several senior military officers, and advice that some of these officers say the President received in various forms when he first set his withdrawal deadlines. They also reflect the realism and the courage that press reports indicate General John F. Campbell—the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until the beginning of this March—showed in bypassing the normal command chain and forwarding similar proposals directly to the White House. They are almost certainly the kind of critical steps the United States needs to take if General Campbell’s successor—General John W. Nicholson—is to have a fighting chance of giving the Afghan’s a fighting chance.

Such changes are critical for two additional reasons. First, if President Obama’s strategy of relying on local forces, rather than deploying large U.S. combat forces, is ever to be given a valid test, it must be given valid resources. Deploying large U.S. forces cannot be the answer to every major security problem, but the United States needs workable alternatives.

Second, the next president needs the opportunity to make real decisions about the future of Afghanistan and this war. Cutting Afghan forces to critically low levels before he or she takes office will hand the next president the worst possible beginning: A defeat that the new leader has no opportunity to avoid, created by a situation there was no opportunity to correct.

For a detailed analysis of the current course of the war, the rising threat, and the problems in Afghan forces and governance, see Afghanistan: The Uncertain Impact of Transition, which is available at .

For an analysis of the problems in the FY2017 budget request for the Afghan and other ongoing U.S. conflicts, seePaying for America’s Wars in FY2017,

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy