When President Obama issued yet another statement on Afghanistan on July 6th, and once again delayed his plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he took actions that had already become almost inevitable. Even though he had announced his plan to cut U.S. troop levels to 5,500 by the end of 2016 less than a month earlier, a level of only 5,500 troops risked critically weakening Afghan forces and possibly losing the war. Keeping the level at 8,400, however, was at best a half measure in meeting Afghanistan’s real needs and probably not even that.

The United States needs a far more serious review of its strategy in Afghanistan. It needs one that stops focusing on deadlines and total troop levels, and one that focuses on what it takes to deal with the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and actually win. It needs a strategy that can build sustained public and Congressional support, and provide a proper legacy for the next president. It needs a strategy that can at least try to avoid making Afghanistan an unnecessary pawn in the bitter presidential campaign to come and to give the Afghans a clear incentive to make critical reforms.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has issued a new report that examines these issues in detail. It is called The Obama Strategy in Afghanistan: Finding a Way to Win, and is available of the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160707_Obama_Strategy_Afghanistan_Final.pdf.

The report draws several key conclusions:

  • The United States should abandon deadlines and artificial caps on its troop levels and focus on providing the forces Afghanistan actually needs to win.
  • The United States needs to provide more trainers, assisters, and enablers, and do so at the level of Afghan combat forces—in spite of the potential risk of combat losses.
  • The United States needs to provide enough combat airpower to provide rapid reinforcements and firepower when Afghan forces face emergencies or major offensives until Afghan ground and air forces are capable of dealing with the terrorist and insurgent.
  • The United States will need to provide major financial aid to Afghan forces for years to come.
  • As serious as the military threat is, the civil side of the war faces an equal crisis. Afghan politics, governance, economics, and corruption pose as much of a threat as the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Qaida.
  • There is no prospect that the United States and its allies can deal with these issues by providing additional financial aid or an effective nation building effort.
  • The recommendations of the World Bank and IMF for Afghan reform—and existing aid commitments and options—can, however, allow the Afghan government to survive its present civil crises.
  • This will require U.S. and allied cooperation in tying aid to clear conditions for Afghan progress in making actual reforms at both the security and civil levels. Without such conditionality, Afghanistan may still lose even with substantial increases in U.S. and allied military support.

The Table of Contents of the report are shown below:

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy