The announcement last week that the US will be increasing the number of personnel that will remain in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. Tactically, the decision continues the current US posture, while strategically it does nothing to address the long term problems. The Afghan government is not interested in governing and that is the reason that increasing forces now will do nothing to prevent future failure.
The mission to advise and support Afghan security forces is a failure. It is a failure precisely because the tactical goals are divorced from underlying strategic problems. The key to a stable Afghanistan has always been to have a government that is broadly acceptable to the majority of Afghan people. A government that is capable of governing within the constraints of Afghan society. As of now it is hard to imagine a government of Afghanistan that would be acceptable to the major ethnic groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Thirty or forty years ago that might have been possible. Now, there just doesn’t seem to be any one leader capable or willing to unite the country. With deep ethnic divisions, any advantage one group gains over the other produces resentment.
With such rivalry in play, the current Afghan government is more interested in the spoils of government than attempting to govern. The list of its failures is long and includes two failed elections, dubious status as the third most corrupt country in the world, and no Minister of Defense for the past year. While that is just a tip of the iceberg, the examples clearly demonstrate that the current government of Afghanistan is not government capable of governing the country. Unfortunately for the US, this is the government we are determined to support. Given its faults and the inherent ethnic tensions, it is not surprising that the security forces we trained and support are failing.
Successful military force can only exist if the government it supports is viewed as legitimate and acceptable by the majority of the people. This dictum has been true both in South Vietnam in the 1970s and Iraq in 2014. Both militaries collapsed because the governments of both countries were corrupt and incompetent and no amount of tactical assistance by the US could make the soldiers of those countries willing to fight and die for those governments. The same quandary exists in Afghanistan. The continued training mission which addresses only tactical problems, without solving the strategic problem of bad governance, is destined to fail.
Additionally, are the Afghans really that incompetent that they need assistance year after year without end? This seems unlikely given the 14 year timeframe. It doesn’t take that long to figure out how to fight. The Taliban took over the country in two years starting in 1994, without a massive training program. At some point the Afghan forces have to take responsibility for their country without US support. After 14 years, it is clear this can only happen if the US sets a firm date for withdrawal. As seen on the other side, the Taliban keeps increasing their capability every year without a huge influx of foreign money and training or air support that the Afghan government gets every year.
There is no easy fix. However, the US should have only extended our stay in Afghanistan if the Afghan government demonstrated the will to fight. Without such commitment any additional US troops will not make any noticeable long term difference. The reason the Taliban is successful is because they, in spite of their 7th century ideology, do address the concerns of the people with regards to the corrupt and predatory central government in Afghanistan. Until that concern can be addressed by the Afghan government, the US could be in Afghanistan another 50 years without accomplishing much of anything and supporting a government that is not interesting in governing. Our limited resources instead can be better spent in the Pacific theater where a rising China presents a true threat to our security that has to be addressed.