Are we losing Afghanistan again?


Editor’s note: The following article was originally published at The New York Times Opinion Page on Oct. 21, 2015.


“ALLAH has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat,” Mullah Muhammad Omar, the first head of the Taliban, once said, “so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” When his colleagues admitted this summer that Mullah Omar had died, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups around the globe remembered those words — victory is a divine certainty — in their eulogies. And in Afghanistan today, though the majority of Afghans still do not identify with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s bold defiance in the face of a superpower is beginning to look prescient.

Since early September, the Taliban have swept through Afghanistan’s north, seizing numerous districts and even, briefly, the provincial capital Kunduz. The United Nations has determined that the Taliban threat to approximately half of the country’s 398 districts is either “high” or “extreme.” Indeed, by our count, more than 30 districts are already under Taliban control. And the insurgents are currently threatening provincial capitals in both northern and southern Afghanistan.

Confronted with this grim reality, President Obama has decided to keep 9,800 American troops in the country through much of 2016 and 5,500 thereafter. The president was right to change course, but it is difficult to see how much of a difference this small force can make. The United States troops currently in Afghanistan have not been able to thwart the Taliban’s advance. They were able to help push them out of Kunduz, but only after the Taliban’s two-week reign of terror. This suggests that additional troops are needed, not fewer.

When justifying his decision last week, the president explained that American troops would “remain engaged in two narrow but critical missions — training Afghan forces, and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.” He added, “We’ve always known that we had to maintain a counterterrorism operation in that region in order to tamp down any re-emergence of active Al Qaeda networks.”

But the president has not explained the full scope of what is at stake. Al Qaeda has already re-emerged. Just two days before the president’s statement, the military announced that it led raids against two Qaeda training camps in the south, one of which was an astonishing 30 square miles in size. The operation lasted several days, and involved 63 airstrikes and more than 200 ground troops, including both Americans and Afghan commandos.

“We struck a major Al Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland,” Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, a military spokesman, said. General Shoffner described it as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” Other significant Qaeda facilities are already being identified in local press reporting.

Recently, Hossam Abdul Raouf, a chief lieutenant of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, confirmed in an audio message that Qaeda’s senior leadership has relocated out of northern Pakistan — no secret to the military and the C.I.A., which have been hunting senior Qaeda figures in Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the year.

The Taliban are not hiding their continuing alliance with Al Qaeda. In August, Mr. Zawahri pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Within hours, Mullah Mansour publicly accepted the “esteemed” Mr. Zawahri’s oath of fealty. And Qaeda members are integrated into the Taliban’s chain of command. In fact, foreign fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda played a significant role in the Taliban-led assault on Kunduz.

The United States made many mistakes in the 9/11 wars. After routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda in late 2001, President George W. Bush did not dedicate the resources necessary to finish the fight. President Obama was right in December 2009 to announce a surge of forces in Afghanistan, but it was short-lived. Al Qaeda is not nearly as “decimated” in South Asia as Mr. Obama has claimed.

We don’t think 5,500 troops is enough. No one is calling for a full-scale occupation of the country. But a force of as many as 20,000 to 25,000 would far better support our local Afghan allies, helping them defend multiple provincial capitals at the same time and fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in their strongholds.

While many believe that Al Qaeda is solely focused on attacking the West, it has devoted most of its efforts to waging insurgencies. This is the key to understanding how it has been able to regenerate repeatedly over the past 14 years. Al Qaeda draws would-be terrorists from the larger pool of paramilitary forces fighting to restore the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or to build radical nation-states elsewhere. Therefore, the mission of the United States is bigger than the one Mr. Obama envisions. Drones and select counterterrorism raids are not enough to end the threat.

Al Qaeda and like-minded groups were founded on the myth that the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan because of the mujahedeen’s faith in Allah alone. This helped spawn a generation of new wars and terrorist attacks, most of which have targeted Muslims. Should the Afghans suffer additional territorial losses, Mullah Omar’s words will appear prophetic. And a new myth, one that will feed the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s violence for years to come, will be born.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Rectorium says:

    i like to think so.

  • Arjuna says:

    Bravo, guys. Why do we have an Army if politicians keep allowing it to lose war after war? You should consider a change of title to the Lost War Journal. Much of the ptsd symptoms come from losing and seeing how little Americans care. 25k is reasonable. No negotiations with the Taliban should be considered. We need to buck up the Afghans, not help them negotiate a surrender because we have ADD and won’t finish what we start. Great points about Tali-AQ, peas in a pod, juicy targets all.

  • m3f2002 says:

    From my perspective, we lost Afghanistan about one second after Obama’s convoluted statement announcing the surge and subsequent withdrawal plans. This withdrawal slowdown is simply trying to avoid another Iraq fiasco scenario on his watch. The next president will be left with very few good options, if any. Have you guys heard the one about the “seagull”: Comes in, makes a lot of noise, soils the whole place, then leaves. I think that analogy fits this administration when it comes to foreign policy.

  • Bill Baar says:

    Kabul has tripled in population since 2002. Curious what impact that will have on the Taliban’s ability to take over.

  • B. H. Vincent says:

    Our first mistake was to put large scale numbers of US troops in Afghanistan after our CIA along with local warlords expelled Obama.

    Our second mistake was to engage in nation building.

    Our third mistake was to continue the making the first two mistakes.

    Stupid is as stupid does!

  • rtloder says:

    The poppy harvest gives the pretense of ulterior motives, apart from that, this is an ideological war.
    Mansour hasn’t opened up yet that I’m aware of.
    Zawahri is loyal to him, but so far nobody knows what he is,not even Zawahri, when that is known Sunni and Shi’ia in the greater community will pass judgment.
    Libya and Afghanistan are not connected to Syria and Iraq in the Muslim mind, because both were attacked by Israeli agents.
    Iraq was over and rebegan, Afghanistan was over and rebegan by IS and US respectively.
    Muslims have a right to fight for leadership.

  • Fred says:

    Or maybe, just maybe, we lost because they beat us. Maybe more troops wouldn’t have helped. Maybe we shouldn’t have been nation building in Afghanistan, of all places, to begin with.

    Maybe we wasted a lot of resources fighting a stupid war that we couldn’t win. Maybe Afghanistan was our Teutenberg Forest, and we should recognize that we have permanently lost control of large regions of the Middle East.

    What’s the worst case scenario here? Afghanistan falls, Syria falls, Iraq falls, a bunch of yokels make a pauper state and call it a caliphate. So what? How much harm can they possible do to us? We have a fantastic intelligence service and a powerful military. 9/11 was a decade and a half ago. Since then 3 Americans have died in terrorist attacks.

    It’s time to fall back to the Rhine. We’re not the first empire to lose to the Arabs on their home turf. Goddamn skirmishers.

  • James says:

    I have felt all along that if it takes US a thousand years for US to succeed over there, then so be it. Obviously what’s needed over there is about a division of troops (about 37,000). This would be more than adequate to get the job done.

    Also, I’d like to know why more hasn’t been done to ‘legitimize’ Afghanistan’s opium crop (as in the legal production of major pharmaceuticals such as morphine, codeine, etc.).

    We also need to better manipulate the situation with ISIS. I can almost guarantee you that if given the choice, the Taliban would rather have to deal with US than ISIS.

  • paul d says:

    The big elephant in the room is Pakistan

  • Arjuna says:

    This Bill Bonner blurb is too apropos not to share:
    “Why do we never win?
    Because too many people benefit from losing… The media, the military, the contractors, the politicians, the lowlife defense contractors in Northern Virginia, the grandstanders in Congress, the CIA, and the NSA… all have been zombified.
    Jon Basil Utley in the American Conservative:
    America doesn’t “win” its wars, because winning a war is secondary to other goals in our war making. Winning or losing has little immediate consequence for the United States, because the wars we start, Wars of Choice, are not of vital national interest; losing doesn’t mean getting invaded or our cities being destroyed.
    Instead, the contracts get rolled over. The promotions keep coming. The money flows. Politicians get elected. And the zombies prosper.
    A clue is in the single word “degrade.” We aren’t fighting the Islamic State to obliterate them like the Russians are. We should get our sore loser tails out of our posteriors and help the Russians. What we are doing in Syria (trying to play “good jihadist/bad jihadist” w our weapons and training to get Assad is exactly what the Pakistanis are having their blow up in their faces trying t0 play “good Taliban/bad Taliban” in AfPak to wrongfoot India). Two wrongs don’t make a right!

  • Arjuna says:

    Hmmm… genetically engineered pandemics, nerve gas attacks, stolen/purchased surplus (not suitcase) nuclear device. Umm. the CIA and FBI are great but they missed 9/11, Detroit, Times Square, Ft Hood, Boston, etc. and the plots are coming much faster and thicker. They are highlighting WMD in their propaganda; expect ops to follow. They surprise us again and again. We have had a great run on defense but our luck is running thin with the odds we are facing.

    The Rhine is the Hindu Kush. We need to own those mountains, and do it with Russian, not Pakistani, help. Don’t forget where Bin Laden planned 9/11 and where the Mad Doctor lives…. AfPak. The threat is not sufficiently diminished for the US to leave. We should take a more Russian approach to ROE, if you ask me. Look at how effective Sukhoi shock-and-awe is proving. Cucarachas on the run. Go back on offense, Uncle Sam.

  • Paul says:

    Can Long War Journal do a detailed analysis of Afghanistan Heroin trade & who benefits?

  • Arjuna says:

    I would turn the ABN and SF units into a sort of “travel team” for the US military. Keep them mainly forward deployed with their families overseas with them. Let them run, and do their necessary work against radical Islam. They can’t win a war from Stateside.
    The last thing the world needs is more opiates. They kill more people than the Taliban ever will. But we could pay them to grow Pomegranates, not Poppies! I’d even go so far as to recommend Agent Orange on the poppies, assuming you could limit health harm.

  • irebukeu says:

    We never ‘won” Afghanistan. We never owned it and it was never ours to lose. We sent in our ‘Burnes and Mcnaughton, ‘Keane and Sale’ and now we are arguing over how many troops need to be left at the cantonment. It’s a disaster and was since women’s rights and economic opportunity became the bellwethers of progress. We were there to punish al qaeda, It’s time to go.

    If you are willing to fight for the Afghans the Afghans will let you while they drink tea. If you are willing to buy them lunch then of course you are willing to buy them dinner.

    It’s time to leave this place. It’s not for us.

  • Alex says:

    Much of this would be a non-issue if:

    -We kept a presence in Iraq, preventing ISIS/AQ affiliated groups from developing staging/training/recruiting areas
    -We backed the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009. This would have allowed us to have a supply corridor through Iran to Afghanistan, which would make cutting aid to Pakistan a credible threat if they don’t play ball.
    -NATO allies actually fulfilled their troop commitments to Afghanistan during the Bush administration

  • kimball says:

    Roger that Paul D.

  • kimball says:

    Hi Paul, you can watch this one while you wait. It is Iran state Tv/press that always a bit angry about the West, but the straight stuff is good and it is a doc. about the drugsmuggling from Afgh. “The frontline”

  • Curtis LeMay says:

    The basic problem is not how many troops are left in the country, but rather what they are doing there. Modern counter insurgency tactics focusing on winning the hearts and minds of the population through nation building, while focusing on decapitation strikes killing the leaders of the insurgency and low civilian casualty producing combat operations. This modern strategy of counter insurgency warfare has usually failed to succeed, it failed in Vietnam, it has obviously failed in Iraq, and it is now failing in Afghanistan. The older, traditional form of counter insurgency warfare which has a proven rate of success is much more brutal in its implementation. Rather than trying to win over the civilian population through positive means, it seeks to brutalize the population supporting the insurgents to the point where they are willing to turn on the insurgency out of fear of retaliation from the occupiers. Isolating and forcibly removing elements of the civilian population that support the insurgency is a key factor in liquidating the support base that drives the insurgency. Without civilian support the insurgency is left with no easy means of resupply and no means of recruiting more cadres to replace its losses. With no more civilian support the insurgents themselves are ruthlessly hunted down and destroyed until they simply no longer exist as a cognizable force in their former area of operations. This was the strategy used succesfully by the United States in counter insurgency operations in the Philippines in 1899 -1913, in Haiti from 1914 – 1920, and in the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1921 as well as the Boer War by the British among various others. The key problem is that in today’s 24 hour news cycle and strong American feelings about human rights throughout the world, there is obviously no support for such heavy handed tactics in the general American population and any attempt to implement such tactics would likely result in widespread outrage against such implementation. Thus unless there is a major change in the dynamic, there is little chance that a successful strategy will ever be implemented, regardless of how many troops are sent to combat the insurgents.

  • Bratva says:

    I’m amazed at the idiocracy of Average western and Indian population commenting here devoid of ground realties.

    You accuse Pakistan of everything without acknowledging what are the driving factors behind Pakistan inaction. Afghanistan NDS and Indian RAW has been formenting trouble in Baluchistan and through TTP in FATA since 2006 by funding training and giving them places to live train and hide . Did Americans took any action against them ? Didnt American turned blind eyes towards the activities of NDS and RAW in afghanistan against Pakistan ?

    So why Pakistan continue to tow the line when Pakistani concers ar being ignored on every corner? It takes two to tango. If you have fulfilled Pakistani concerns, Pakistan wouldnot have had tuned blind eye towards Haqqanis.

    But hey What I know despite living in Pakistan . Average americans watching fox news and Indians watching Zee TV would know far more than us Pakistanis

  • Arjuna says:

    Agree completely that the way to win is when insurgents themselves are ruthlessly hunted down and destroyed. It’s sad we’ve come to this but it’s the only way to win against an enemy that hides in hospitals. Russian rules of engagement. No more patty-cake and tiny warheads. Gloves off, and do it in memory of the Josh Marshalls of the world. Make the enemy fear the United States of America’s warriors, not just its weapons.

  • Arjuna says:

    Sadly I have spent a lot of time in South Asia and know many Pakistanis. It is why I am so pessimistic for the future of the human race. Where the hate ends, the greed and imbecility begin. I don’t think Uncle Sam ignores Pakistan, because everyone notices a barnyard dog. It just is very hard to put down a fellow living creature when one isn’t sure if its pro-terrorism/pro-proliferation disease is curable. RAW and NDS are doing what they can to keep Al Qaeda and their allies in the Pakistan (ISI)-backed Taliban from starting World War Three between India and Pakistan, which they keep trying to do. That’s important work, just like Faux News is a silly, jingoistic network filled with fake Patriots.

  • Arjuna says:

    Typo not Marshall, he was Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, from Roland, Oklahoma. He died saving others. God bless him.

  • J Matthews says:

    Nation building a mistake? Ever been to South Korea?

  • J Matthews says:

    …or America? Nation building is what we do.

  • Ross says:

    We need to empty our prisons on Afghanistan. It will be pro American in about 20 years.

  • steveg says:

    The west just doesn’t have the ‘staying power’ in these places to control these areas. The Afghan army is weak and are leaving large captured areas in the Afghan armies hands which does not guarantee anything. Most of the population are torn between the Taliban and the Afghan army and one day they are in hands of the Taliban and the next day they are in Afghan hands. The coalition captured vast areas of Afghanistan with many casualties only to withdraw and let the Taliban recapture those areas very soon after. The biggest mistake is that the US and the coalition are pulling out of Afghanistan and the Afghanis do not have the power to control the Taliban, this has been proven over and over again and the US and coalition countries are fighting a losing battle (kike they always did and do) unless they stay in Afghanistan and train the Afghani army and have the majority of the Afghani people backing them and on their side. Afghanistan will never ever be a free country or a democracy unless the Afghani people want it and they fight the Taliban for it, otherwise Afghanistan will be a caliphate for the Taliban and the jihadists as it was before.

  • steveg says:

    The counter insurgency should totally consist of Afghani solders just like it was and is in Iraq, where they had so much success in countering the insurgency in 2005 and until this day around Baghdad. But the Afghani army is not as experienced as the Iraqi old guard that was employed and generated by ex Saddam generals and leaders to lead the anti insurgency army in Iraq with great success and victories. There is allot of work to be done in Afghanistan if the Taliban is to be stopped or completely exterminated as jihadi force! The people of Afghanistan and the provinces are not prepared to fight for their freedom and they are slowly being concurred into the Taliban sharia caliphate!

  • abdul says:

    You are right. As long as us afghans start think about our country than evry think will be right.

  • abdul says:

    TB come closs to lashkargah the capital of helmand province,currently fighting going on between TB fighters and the governments forces around Marja district and Nad ali some part of Nad Ali is captured by TB already

  • irebukeu says:

    Looking back through the articles I just noticed your comment here. I couldn’t agree more with you. Well said.


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