By Vik Shah
At one point in 2011, the United States had over 101,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. That was the height of the surge, when Helmand province had so many troops from the US Marine Corps that it was referred to as “Marine-istan.” Driven by institutional and organizational rivalries, US troops were heavily focused on “bagging and tagging” as many Taliban fighters as they could and were therefore stationed in the far reaches of Afghan mountains and valleys governed by tribal leaders that never saw themselves as part of the somewhat-mythical Afghan state. Population centers like Kandahar, the quasi-capital of Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan, received a fraction of the troops compared to Helmand, home to only 4% of Afghans. When the surge began in 2010, President Obama made a firm commitment to the American people during a speech at West Point Academy that the operation would only last two years and that in 2012 the US would begin reducing its military presence in Afghanistan and begin transferring over combat responsibilities to the Afghan National Army (ANA). The US forces in Afghanistan during the surge had two, unequally weighted responsibilities. First, to find, disrupt, and destroy the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. More importantly, however, the US forces were supposed to train the ANA in modern battlefield tactics and equip them with the tools they needed to continue the fight against terrorism and to enforce the rule of law in their country.
This meant giving them billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, vehicles, equipment, and training them to use and maintain them without US or NATO support. However, this second responsibility was given far less importance in the eyes of senior military commanders who were concerned with racking up as many enemy killed-in-action’s (KIAs) as possible. Once the drawdown began, the ANA was so poorly prepared that they sustained 7,000-8,000 battlefield deaths in the first fighting season in the summer of 2012. This toll was twice as high as the combined deaths the US had in both Iraq and Afghanistan after over a decade of conflict, which was just over 3,000 servicemen and women. In addition, the ANA still lacks the close-air and emergency medical capabilities necessary to sustain long-term operations. This past summer, the President announced the final troop drawdown timetable and set 2016, coincidentally also an election year, as the year that all military personnel will leave Afghanistan, save for the 1,000 stationed at the US Embassy in Kabul.
This presents a major threat to the overall US strategy. The Taliban know that the largest threat to their resurgence, the US military, will only be operational in Afghanistan for a few more months and then will begin sending resources state-side to meet their 2016 deadline. This means that all they need to do is head to Pakistan, their de-jure and de-facto sanctuary, and wait until the last US boots have left the ground and launch their resurgence. One of the first Taliban commanders captured by the US Army’s fabled 82nd Airborne Division in early 2002 said upon interrogation that the US will never win this war. He predicted that we will grow tired and leave Afghanistan much like we did in 1989 and that when the dust finally settles, the Taliban will return.