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Alex Koehler

Ms. Sarah Fillman

Communication Arts Program

3 June 2019

The American Role in Defense of Afghanistan

1.​ ​The Strategic Importance of a Secure Afghanistan

After 19 years of direct military invasion, occupation, and large-scale withdrawal,

Afghanistan is still a country most Americans are unlikely to identify on a map. Although the

“Forgotten War” in Afghanistan has waned considerably in the public eye, the Coalition of 39

contributing members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) steadfastly retain over

17,000 troops in the country. For stability in a region of hostility, the United States in particular

devotes immense resources to ensure a threat cannot again arise from the turmoil of insurgencies

in Afghanistan. The threat posed by extremist groups is real, according to former National

Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, for “if they enjoy a safe haven support base, they're able to

amass the resources necessary to do the planning, the preparation, and training to conduct the

mass murder attacks.” In 2001, the Taliban occupied large swaths of Afghanistan in order to

harbor the so-called “Afghan alumni” which perpetrated the terror attacks of September 11th.

Since the ensuing American invasion, the U.S. has played an essential role in the creation of the

modern Afghan nation and stands dedicated to its defense from internal threats. These threats

have since evolved as “the Al-Qaeda alumni and the Nusra alumni and the ISIS alumni are

orders of magnitude larger than the Afghan alumni ever were,” and, left unchecked, possess the

capacity to wreak devastating harm (McMaster).

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However, enticed by the tantalizing potential for peace with the Taliban, the Trump

administration has considered ending U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. In conference with

the Secretary General of NATO on April 2nd, 2019, President Trump emphasized, “we call

[Afghanistan] the ‘endless war’…It’s unfortunate. It’s ridiculous” (“Remarks by President

Trump”). According to McMaster, the U.S. is gripped by “this defeatist narrative now that…

doesn't reflect what's at stake and oftentimes doesn't reflect the actual situation.” It is clear

President Trump’s stance is influenced by a defeatist narrative which neglects the grave

consequences from such action. As an allied bastion in the Middle East, Afghanistan is a

strategic asset ensured only by continued U.S. involvement in its security. The United States

must assume an active military presence in Afghanistan because the NATO Coalition’s

campaign of demobilization has not reduced the need for direct U.S. combat assistance to

supplement the Afghan security forces. Nearly two decades of Coalition sponsorship for the

Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF) have proven unsuccessful at fostering a

self-sufficient national defense force that can adequately address the terrorism threat to the U.S.

and its allies.

2. The Consequences of NATO Drawdown

From its conception, the process of withdrawal of NATO troops could not have

diminished the commitment long upheld by Afghanistan’s Coalition allies, but actually incited a

drastic deterioration in the security situation. In November 2010, then-President of Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai joined the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, to determine the Coalition’s future

strategy in Afghanistan. At the Lisbon Summit, the leaders of NATO and Afghanistan adopted a

policy which transitioned the responsibility of Afghan security from Coalition troops to the
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fledgling Afghan National Defense and Security Force, or ANDSF. According to NATO,

“developing professional, capable and self-sustaining Afghan National Security Forces was at

the center of [the Coalition’s] efforts and the core mission of the NATO Training Mission in

Afghanistan” (“NATO and Afghanistan”). In pursuit of this mission, over the course of four

years the Coalition reduced its troop concentration from a peak of 130,000 to just 17,000

throughout Afghanistan (“NATO and Afghanistan”). This strategy allowed the Coalition to

extricate their soldiers and transfer the burden of combat to Afghans, but quickly exacerbated

issues stemming from an overestimation of ANDSF operational capabilities and the dependency

of Afghan units on Coalition combat support. These consequences revealed severe vulnerabilities

in the ANDSF and allowed insurgents to seize the initiative over the succeeding years of conflict.

The withdrawal of NATO troops and transfer of responsibility to the ANDSF did not decrease

the role of U.S. and its allies, as they remain vital to maintaining security in Afghanistan.

2.1 Overestimation of Afghan Capabilities

An overestimation of the capabilities of Afghan combat units lasted throughout the

NATO drawdown and impaired the transition to Afghan-led security. The transition, or “Inteqal”

in Pashto, from Coalition forces to ANDSF was completed in five stages which were each

commenced by Afghan President Karzai. The president received assessments on transitional

readiness from a Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board or JANIB. Integral to the board’s

recommendations were evaluations on “the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces to

shoulder additional security tasks with less assistance from [the Coalition]” (Inteqal). However,

as the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, unveiled in 2010, “the

system used to rate the ANDSF overstated their operational capabilities and, in fact, created
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disincentives for ANDSF improvement” (“Assessing the Capabilities”). SIGAR found that after

receiving positive evaluations, “38 percent of [Afghan National Army] units and 66 percent of

[Afghan National Police] units were shown to have regressed at least one level in capability over

a 12-month period” (Sopko 52). This phenomenon was a consequence of the overestimation of

Afghan units’ independent capabilities, as units which were graded highly “lost their mentors

and partner support, along with valuable protection, expertise, supplies, funding, and prestige,”

causing the decline in their operational performance (Sopko 51). Overestimation continued to

cripple NATO assessments of the Afghans’ capabilities throughout the Inteqal transition. By

February 2014, the last year of Inteqal, SIGAR continued to report that “unclear guidance led to

disparities in the quantity and quality of information across assessments, and to inconsistencies

in the evaluations of ANDSF” (“Assessing the Capabilities”).

The system of evaluation for Afghan units facilitated contradiction between their

perceived strength versus their actual abilities, seriously compromising the effectiveness of the

transition process. The system’s flaws effectively nullified the value of its assessments, which, in

turn, critically undermined the JANIB’s recommendations to President Karzai. Moreover, the

problem surrounding ANDSF evaluation demonstrates how the Coalition failed to gain an

accurate understanding of the actual proficiency of the Afghan units they fostered, which led to

these units struggling to fill the shoes of their NATO counterparts once they were on their own.

2.2 Afghan Dependency on Allies

Left unsupported, Afghan troops proved unable to counter the Taliban threat without

resorting to rapid U.S. response. As SIGAR emphasized, “the Afghans needed help from U.S.

forces to retake Kunduz only 10 months after the end of U.S. combat operations… a
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battalion-sized contingent of U.S. soldiers [were] sent to Helmand to bolster the Afghan National

Army’s efforts” (“Assessing the Capabilities”). SIGAR’s appraisal of standalone Afghan

capabilities indicates the security situation escalated out of control after the official U.S.

withdrawal. This grave report is corroborated by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

(FDD) Long War Journal, which after tracking the deteriorating situation province-by-province

has concluded, “since the U.S. drawdown of peak forces in 2011, the Taliban has unquestionably

been resurgent” (Gutowski). Afghan reliance on Coalition combat support had dire consequences

when gaps in ANDSF performance against the Afghan insurgencies became painfully apparent.

2.3 Continued Taliban and Insurgent Threat

The hastiness of NATO drawdown and the ANDSF’s unpreparedness to confront Afghan

insurgencies allowed the insurgent threat to surge. Between the ANDSF and the Taliban,

“control of Afghanistan's districts, population, and territory has become more contested over the

last two years, resulting in a stalemated battlefield environment” (“House Oversight and

Reform”). However, not all of the insurgent threat lies in the Taliban. In an address to Congress

in April 2019, the Special Inspector General admitted, “the most enduring threat… has been an

ongoing and resilient insurgency and the presence in Afghanistan of terrorist groups such as

Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K)” (“House Oversight and Reform”). Even after the celebrated

defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the movement’s offshoot in Afghanistan, the

so-called Khorasan region, persists.

The risk that accompanies another extensive military withdrawal, in which the ANDSF is

expected to fend for itself, cannot again be disregarded. While the U.S. maintained a substantial

military presence in Afghanistan, terrorism was kept in check. The sudden drawdown of
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Coalition forces presented insurgents with the opportunity to overcome the Afghan National

Defense Force’s limited capabilities. As the ANDSF lost swathes of the country, the insurgents

accumulated territory which, left unchallenged, provides a hotbed for dangerous extremist

ideology that heightens the risk of terrorist strikes abroad to this day.

3. The Unsustainability of the ANDSF

Despite 17 years of combat experience with unabating NATO financial assistance, the

Afghan National Defense and Security Force has proven unable to provide internal security. The

Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction could not refrain from blatantly declaring

before the Subcommittee on National Security of the Oversight and Reform Committee of the

U.S. House of Representatives, “the ANDSF is not able to protect the population from insurgents

in large parts of the country” (“House Oversight & Reform”). When asked in testimony if there

were a withdrawal of U.S. forces, whether the ANDSF could provide for internal security,

former Commander of U.S. Central Command Joseph Votel responded, “Afghan forces are

dependent upon the coalition's support that we provide to them” (“House Armed Services

Committee”). These statements confirm that the ANDSF remains militarily incapable of

fulfilling its security role. The ANDSF has consistently demonstrated ineffectiveness and,

considering the existential sustainability challenges it faces, is an investment that must be


3.1 Pitfalls of Continued ANDSF Funding

The ANDSF has long been provided limitless financial support in order to kickstart

progress. Across the Coalition, “as of 28 May 2018, total contribution made to the

NATO-Afghan National Army Trust Fund amount to more than USD 2.3 billion” (“NATO &
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Afghanistan”). Of the financial contribution by the U.S., “about 63% of all reconstruction

funding, or $83.1 billion since 2001, has gone to build up the Afghan National Defense and

Security Forces” (“House Oversight & Reform”). Afghan reconstruction funding has proven one

foreign commitment which the Coalition seems eager to continue financing indefinitely.

According to SIGAR, “[in July 2018] NATO allies agreed to extend their financial sustainment

of the ANDSF through 2024. [In November 2018,] international donors reaffirmed their intent to

provide $15.2 billion… up to 2020” (“House Oversight and Reform”).

Provided this massive influx of money, the government of Afghanistan remains too

inefficient to maximize its financial assistance. According to SIGAR, “the central government's

capabilities are generally weak and it often lacks the capacity to manage and account for donor

funds” (“House Oversight and Reform”). As a result U.S. funding commonly goes to waste, as

“SIGAR has found many instances when U.S. funding dedicated to the ANDSF was…

inefficiently spent on worthwhile endeavors or squandered on activities that delivered no

apparent benefit” (“Assessing the Capabilities”). In part due to endemic corruption, the Afghan

government cannot contribute even the baseline requisite towards its own national defense force.

The monetary expectation of the Afghan government to the ANDSF, $500 million USD per year,

is incomparably less than the combined benefaction of the NATO member-states. However, the

Afghan government has difficulty mustering even this amount, as “the Afghan government has

not even been able to make the contribution of $500 million per year it agreed to at the 2012

NATO Summit” (“Assessing the Capabilities”).

As a result of the Afghans’ reliance on foreign support, no matter the amount of aid

already provided, an underfunded ANDSF will persist. As SIGAR noted in 2015, “this year the
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United States contributed $4.1 billion, and even with U.S. funding of this magnitude, SIGAR’s

work shows that the ANDSF is unable to sustain itself in many areas” (“Assessing the

Capabilities”). As of April of 2019, SIGAR’s finding is unchanged, insistent that “Afghanistan is

nowhere near to being able to fund its current government--in particular, its military and

police--with its own resources” (“House Oversight & Reform”). From this indisputable truth, the

decision to continue donating the Afghan government a National Army, National Police, Special

Operations, and Air Forces, when Coalition troops have historically fulfilled each of these roles

more effectively, must be called to question. It is apparent that the ANDSF’s long-term goal of

self-sufficiency is unrealizable, and thus the force cannot be expected to carry out its security

role independently, nor should funding for it be sustained at present level.

4. Implications

President Trump’s inclination to completely reduce U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan

jeopardizes the country’s survival and, in turn, American national security. The spectre of peace

with the Taliban must be weighed against the threat of insecurity posed by insurgencies in the

future. As all indications discredit the notion of a self-sufficient ANDSF from being realistically

attainable, continued reliance on this force to provide security single-handedly is blatantly

misguided. The Afghan government’s control over their territory and the very integrity of their

military is severely threatened by any further U.S. withdrawal. Afghanistan clearly cannot afford

this sacrifice. The security situation demands an increased U.S. military response should the

19-year American investment prove worthwhile.

4.1 Unreliability of Negotiations

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After so many years of inconclusive conflict, the chance at a negotiated peace may seem

politically opportune, even militarily sound. In his final testimony before Congress, retired

four-star general Joseph Votel declared, “in Afghanistan, the president's South Asia Strategy is

working. The efforts of our special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Ambassador Zal

Khalilzad, show there is a path of progress” (“House Armed Services Committee”). Assistant

Defense Secretary for International Security Affairs Kathryn Wheelbarger stated further, “this is

an opportunity that we have not necessarily seen before and… the military is poised to continue

supporting the efforts of the reconciliation talks” (“House Armed Services Committee”). It is

evident the administration is seriously considering the peace deal being offered by the Taliban.

The consequences of succumbing to Taliban demands for additional U.S. military withdrawal,

however, would most likely be disastrous.

The essential promise by the Taliban, to never provide refuge in Afghanistan for

extremist groups, must be held in extreme suspect. Suspicion of a negotiated settlement comes

from the preeminent advisor on Afghanistan himself. In SIGAR’s 2019 high risk assessment, the

Inspector General forewarned, “any political settlement entails the risk that not all subordinate

groups will abide by an agreement made by their organization's leadership” (“House Oversight &

Reform”). Foreign policy experts likewise concur, as according to the FDD, “[Ambassador for

Afghan Reconciliation] Khalilzad has been especially credulous when it comes to the Taliban’s

alleged counterterrorism assurances… [they have] lied about al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan

since the 1990s, and... [have] never publicly renounced al Qaeda” (“U.S. Military Ends”).

Further distrust is expressed by the Brookings Institute, whose analyst reckons, “to publicly

disavow support for its international jihadi brethren… [compromises] its ability to receive
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support, including funds, from global jihadi networks,” support the Taliban would depend on

should civil war continue following any U.S. withdrawal (Felbab-Brown). Analysts agree that

the Taliban, in any negotiation, are likely to exaggerate their promises in order to expedite an

American withdrawal. On June 1st, 2019, the Taliban themselves released a declaration which

espouses, “no one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of Jihad or

forget our forty-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives” (“Taliban Leader Claims”).

5. Conclusion

The NATO drawdown was unsuccessful at relieving the Coalition of responsibility over

Afghan security. Due to an overestimation of Afghan capabilities and their dependency on

Coalition combat support, insurgent groups have remained a persistent threat. A withdrawal of

U.S. troops at this time can only increase the terrorist threat currently unmatched by the Afghan

Security Forces. According to the Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, “Afghanistan

cannot support itself unless we continue helping them” (“Afghanistan Inspector General”). The

security and stability of Afghanistan can best be helped by increasing U.S. military involvement

in the country. The U.S. needs to resign to the inadequacy of the ANDSF and recommit to the

mission of upholding security. Instead of devoting billions of dollars to sustaining the ANDSF, a

renewed U.S. directive is necessary to achieve success. As McMaster argues, “there's always

been a need for the Army and our land forces to play a role in establishing governance and to

consolidate those gains.” It is the obligation of everyday Americans to again advocate for

aggressive policy on Afghanistan and exert pressure on their representatives to address this

urgent national security priority.

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