On September 6, 2017, Reuters reported that the first of 3,500 American military reinforcements were headed to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of American forces there to approximately 14,500. These reinforcements are necessary to retake Afghan territory from the Taliban, improve the capabilities and professionalism of the Afghan military, and prevent increased regional conflict. After 16 years of war, Afghanistan is strategically significant to American security interests and the Afghan government remains seriously challenged by both internal divisions and the Taliban-led insurgency. While increased American forces will not solve all of Afghanistan’s problems, they are essential to prevent the further deterioration of security within Afghanistan and the broader region.
With the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014, the Afghan military assumed the lead role in combat operations. Since then, they have suffered high casualties and consistently lost territory to the Taliban-led insurgency. This failure signifies the inadequacy of the Afghan military and the urgent need for American reinforcements. As of November 2016, the Afghan government either fully governed or heavily influenced 57% of the districts within the country. This represents a 15% decrease from the previous year as the Taliban-led insurgency has steadily increased its presence throughout the country. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that from 2013 to 2016, the Afghan National Army annually lost one third of its force. This high turnover has created to a poorly trained and demoralized military force. The same report also found that the Afghan National Police lack training and are perceived by most Afghans as highly corrupt. The weak condition of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, coupled with the withdrawal of most American combat forces in 2014, is a major contributing factor to the loss of government-held territory to the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
The Afghan government’s inability to effectively govern its own territory has led to terrorist groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS strengthening their positions within Afghanistan. These terrorist groups have regularly demonstrated their capability to defeat the Afghan military and to launch terrorist attacks internationally, even in the United States. Additional U.S. troops will provide valuable assistance to the Afghan military through support and mentoring that has been lacking due to previously insufficient American troop levels. Indeed, General John Nicholson, the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has cited the need for increased American advisors to the Afghan military.
U.S. General John Nicholson
The loss of most of Helmand Province to the Taliban in 2015 demonstrated this shortage of advisors most clearly. The Afghan National Army unit responsible for the province, the 215th Afghan National Army Corps, lacked a consistent American advisor team. While American advisors do not guarantee military success, they drastically increase the capabilities of the Afghan military. This is especially true of capabilities such as air, intelligence, and artillery support, which are necessary to retake territory. Such support provides Afghan forces with a significant battlefield advantage over insurgents.
Additionally, increased American advisors help to address the poor leadership and high levels of corruption within the Afghan military. The supervisory role played by American advisors provides the chance to monitor and check the worst of these excesses. The continued absence of such advisors certainly does nothing to resolve the problem. Additionally, the professional leadership ethos of the American military could be adopted by future Afghan military leaders.
U.S. advisors with Afghan National Army soldiers
The continued failure of the Afghan military to adequately control its borders could also have drastic consequences for Pakistan. The connections between Pakistan, particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), and the Taliban have been well documented since 2006 when American, NATO, and Afghan intelligence produced a joint report recognizing the strong assistance provided by the ISI to the Taliban. However, a further deterioration in the Afghan security situation, resulting in strengthened terrorist groups, could lead to further instability within Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s perpetually weak state and nuclear weapons arsenal, further instability poses significant danger to the security of the United States and the region. Additionally, by virtue of its geographic location, Afghanistan serves as a link between the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. This raises the prospect that any instability caused by the failure of the Afghan military is unlikely to stay confined within Afghan borders, potentially opening a Pandora’s Box of regional conflict.
Opponents of the reinforcements most commonly argue for American withdrawal instead, viewing further American military involvement as exacerbating the terrorist threat within Afghanistan and seeing the further expenditure of American lives, resources, and time as a waste. However, supporters of this argument fail to recognize the many different elements of American involvement. This viewpoint sees the entire 16 years, which have included such differing phases as overthrowing the Taliban, the surge in American forces, and the withdrawal of those forces as a single policy, instead of the many different strategies which they represent. In this present phase reinforcements are slated primarily to advise the Afghan military and to provide them with increased access to American airpower. These policies were previously recommended by the military but were rejected by the Obama Administration and not attempted. Finally, withdrawal from Afghanistan would allow terrorist groups to earn a sanctuary from which to plot future attacks and claim victory, while simultaneously depriving the United States of the ability to play a role in shaping the future of the region.
The limited number of reinforcements and the emphasis placed on advising the Afghan military, as opposed to direct engagement, reflects humbled objectives in Afghanistan. While military strength alone is insufficient for complete success, it is a prerequisite to achieving the most essential objectives of preventing state collapse, bolstering security forces to retake territory, and preventing increased regional instability. Thus far, Afghan forces have proven incapable of accomplishing these objectives on their own. If these objectives are not met, Afghanistan could again become a terrorist sanctuary, with dire consequences for the United States and the rest of the world. Thus, the U.S. troop reinforcements serve the national security interest by bolstering the performance of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
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Thomas Seaman is a first year student in the MAIA program, focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security. Prior to beginning at the Elliott School, he served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone. They do not express the views of any employers or affiliates.