There has been a great deal of discussion in recent weeks regarding the appropriate size of the post-2014 U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.
Many well-known pundits have argued that the United States should keep as many as 15,000 troops on the ground. The rationale cited is that we must have a "robust presence" to accomplish American strategic objectives. They argue that going with a force smaller than that, or taking the so-called zero-option of complete withdrawal, must be resisted to avoid defeat.
That line of reasoning seeks to base a policy on a view of Afghanistan as they wish things were, not as conditions actually exist. A little context might prove useful.
In August 2009, the United States had 68,000 troops on the ground when Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that, unless significant changes were made, we risked losing the Afghan war. As a result of his dire assessment, President Barack Obama sent in 30,000 "surge troops," bringing the total troop presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000 Americans. I served in Afghanistan during the height of the surge, and made some observations during almost a year in the country and after traveling more than 9,000 miles throughout the combat zone.
In January 2011, when the United States was at the zenith of its surge density, I went on a mounted patrol with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in a key area of eastern Afghanistan. We dismounted at the farthest northern checkpoint in that area, and the platoon leader told me something about the route that I never forgot.
"We own maybe 100 meters on either side of the road from the combat outpost to this point," he said, adding, "well, actually we 'influence' 100 meters on either side.
"You see the territory as far as you can see in that direction?" he asked, pointing northeast of our position to a series of progressively rising peaks covering maybe 10 miles. "From 100 meters beyond this road, to as far as you can see, the Taliban have free rein. We can't even influence it."
That was in one of the two most important parts of Afghanistan at a time when the United States had 100,000 U.S. troops and 50,000 from NATO. Even with this massive force, we couldn't influence what happened within visual range of our position.
Today, there are about 66,000 U.S. troops on the ground and, according to the president, we will hand over control of the country to Afghan forces this spring. About 34,000 troops will be withdrawn this year, the White House announced last week. Now, as we consider what America's post-2014 posture should be in Afghanistan, it's time to accept a few hard — but observable — truths about this mission.
The blunt fact of the matter is that, since McChrystal's assessment, the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan has achieved nothing of strategic value. The problems cited in August 2009 still exist and in some key aspects are worse. I personally observed how 150,000 U.S./NATO troops and almost 300,000 Afghan security forces could not even sustain a tactical victory at a time when they had every military advantage.
Under the conditions that exist today, the Taliban has all the advantages in any final-settlement negotiations. The warlords have been preparing openly for a post-NATO period in Afghanistan, when they expect their national forces will prove incapable of protecting their population, and the people themselves have barely concealed antipathy for their own government.
Into this environment some pundits suggest that as few as 9,000 Americans are going to mean the difference between strategic success and failure — when 100,000 couldn't accomplish irreversible tactical gains.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as asking his Cabinet: "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?"
In response, his advisers are said to have rolled their eyes and answered, "Five."
"Four," the president responded. "Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."
After 30 consecutive years of war in Afghanistan, and almost 12 years of American efforts there, we continue to call our efforts successful, always claiming the next military strategy will succeed where all previous attempts have failed. It is time to accept that we are not going to turn 12 years of a failed Afghan tail into a strategically successful leg by leaving a few thousand combat troops on the ground after 2014. To do so would be to increase the cost of failure.
Daniel L. Davis is a lieutenant colonel in the Army stationed in Washington, D.C. The opinions reflected in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.
© 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer