Today, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John “Mic” Nicholson, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Though it remains the longest war in American history, the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan received little attention during the presidential race and even less since President Trump entered office. You may recall that in December 2009, President Obama authorized the deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 97,000. The vast majority of those troops have returned home; there are 8,400 troops in country now (plus 26,000 military contractors, 9,474 of whom are U.S. citizens).
Since Obama’s Afghan surge, the security situation has deteriorated markedly. Nearly 1,700 U.S. troops were killed while serving there, the annual number of civilians casualties (the majority of whom were killed or injured by the Taliban) increased from 7,162 (in 2010) to 11,418 (in 2016), the number of jihadist groups grew (including the creation of a satellite Islamic State outpost)—all while the Taliban expanded its control and influence over more territory than at any other point since 9/11. That last metric is especially revealing, given Obama’s vow that the additional forces would “reverse the Taliban’s momentum.” This has not happened.
During today’s hearing, SASC Chairman John McCain asked Nicholson outright, “In your assessment, are we winning or losing?” Nicholson replied, “We’re in a stalemate.” Nicholson added that his command’s objective was to “destroy al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were doing most of the direct fighting to accomplish this. However, he noted that he was a “few thousand” troops short of what was needed to adequately train and advise the ANSF. Though Nicholson did not say so explicitly, the implication was that just a few more troops could turn the tide. But it is hard to imagine how these additional forces would improve the security situation in any lasting way.
The most telling moment in the SASC hearing came when Nicholson remarked that plans were being developed to “find success” in Afghanistan within the next four years. That would mark a full twenty years of direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Since the first Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary teams entered Afghanistan in November 2001, 2,350 servicemembers have given their lives and almost $900 billion in taxpayers’ money has been spent. Meanwhile, the country is less politically stable and less secure from all forms of insurgent and criminal predation. No one can say how or when this largely forgotten war will end, but “finding success” certainly should begin with some realism, honesty, and a corresponding adjustment in U.S. expectations and objectives.