Afghanistan war, 11 years on: What more can and should the US military do?

Though the work of US troops has become increasingly deadly in the Afghanistan war, many analysts warn that it has not been increasingly effective.

Brennan Linsley/AP
In this 2009 photo, U.S. Marine squad leader Sgt. Matthew Duquette, left, walks with Afghan National Army Lt. Hussein, during a joint patrol in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

It is officially the longest-running war in American history, and its end is in sight: President Obama has promised to pull all US combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

That date, however, is two years away, and in the meantime, some analysts wonder what more the US military can and should do in the country.

Incidents of “green on blue” insider attacks, by Afghan security forces against the US and NATO soldiers training them, now account for more than 20 percent of those killed in action.

Indeed, the pace of deaths for US troops has accelerated since the surge of 33,000 forces that Mr. Obama ordered into Afghanistan began in 2010.

In particular, it took nine years of fighting in Afghanistan before 1,000 US troops were killed. But the second 1,000 US troop deaths have come in the past two years. Last month in the Afghanistan war, America reached the grim 2,000-US-troops-killed-in-action milestone. On Saturday, two more US troops were killed by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan.

Though the work of US troops has become increasingly deadly, many analysts warn that it has not been increasingly effective.

Pentagon officials point to the 300,000-plus Afghan security forces that have been trained as a result of NATO efforts. But the attrition rates remain high, and these soldiers and police continue to struggle against the network of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 insurgents – despite the fact that they outnumber them roughly 10 to 1.

Some 5,000 Afghans are now enrolled in the national “reintegration” program that provides job training and cash to former Taliban fighters who have agreed to put down their arms. Though it has “potential,” this program “is not yet a game-changer,” Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, acknowledges.

In the meantime, the 68,000 US troops that remain in Afghanistan continue to do much of the heavy lifting, in the form of patrols and even the logistics systems that feed, equip, and maintain the Afghan forces.

In roughly half of the war, the focus has ostensibly been on training these Afghan forces. But with the spate of insider attacks, US troops have been forced to implement “guardian angel” programs.

Bradshaw emphasizes that these programs are discreet. “You know, whoever's got the responsibility to keep an eye on their mates while they're taking exercise or playing sport or relaxing in between operations, whoever has that task just tactfully stays on one side,” he says. “Clearly they have a weapon and they're ready to use it if necessary, but they're not constantly in people's faces. It's done in a tactful and sensible manner.”

Still, the insider attacks, casualties, and persistent corruption throughout the Afghan government after a decade-plus of war make some wonder whether the war effort continues to be worth the cost.

“The administration’s strategy at this point is that they are relying on a negotiated settlement, and what the fighting is doing is determining the terms of that settlement,” says Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Some might argue that “the right thing to do is sticking it out and suffering the casualties we will suffer until 2014,” he adds.

But whether that is indeed the right thing to do, he says, hinges on, “how much can you shift the terms of a prospective settlement in your favor while you continue to fight?”

Right now, it’s increasingly hard to answer that question. “We’re doing a variety of things that even as we continue to fight are moving the settlement terms in the wrong direction,” Dr. Biddle says.

The ability to sustain any settlement will be another key indicator of the success of the war – and it is dependent on Afghan government reform, he adds.

That’s because any settlement is likely to legalize the Taliban as a political party. If Afghan leaders continue to allow what Biddle calls “an increasingly predatory government,” then the Taliban’s foothold in the government will grow.

Busy with fighting and training, the US has “significantly reduced” its government reform efforts. In fact, the insider attacks that US forces are enduring could be “the tip of a larger iceberg” related to this corruption, Biddle argues.

While the US military has painted the attacks as largely rooted in cultural conflict and has vowed to redouble cultural training efforts for US troops, a more effective means of addressing the problem is government reform, Biddle says.

Afghan fighters see that their commanders do not have their best interests at heart, he argues, because many of them are political appointees – given their job by higher-ups in government, often with a wink and a nod, to protect large payoff networks that are often making the government officials, as well as the commanders, rich.

Afghan troops see this and lose their will to fight. In turn, US troops are “disdainful” of this lack of will to fight. “All of these American 19-year-olds have been taught that the one thing that is least praiseworthy and least respectable is lack of courage under fire – and they are training and living with people who they believe lack that,” Biddle explains.

“The result is that there’s a serious danger that what you get is systematic disrespect,” he says. “There’s reason to believe that lots of Afghans feel they are seriously disrespected, and I think you end up in a situation where mutual disdain builds.”

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