Afghanistan after Mattis: A revised strategy to focus on counterterrorism and the Afghan Security Forces

Afghan police special forces take part in a military exercise in Logar province, Afghanistan November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC111F4719E0

Executive summary

The center of gravity in the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan should be modified. The focus should not be on nation-building writ large. Nor should it be on helping the Afghan government extend its control over more of the country’s territory—a desirable, but nonessential, objective. Rather, the emphasis should be squarely on making the Afghan security forces more resilient and capable. Doing so will likely keep the country’s cities and main roads in government hands, allowing the United States to preserve counterterrorism capacities in South Asia for the long haul.

This goal would be more readily achieved by keeping U.S. force totals near their current 14,000 troop level for some time to come. But it can also be attempted, with reasonable prospects, at smaller deployment figures if necessary, given President Trump’s potential interest in reducing the American military presence in Afghanistan by perhaps a quarter to half soon. To pursue these objectives, Washington should support Afghan policies like the following:

— Take the Afghan National Army Territorial Force concept to scale in 2019-2020, ultimately building dozens or even hundreds of company-sized formations of perhaps 200 soldiers or so each. Since many Afghans prefer to defend their home territories rather than distant parts of the nation, this concept should help greatly with army recruiting and retention.

— Emulate the rotation and rest policies of the Afghan special forces within the regular army and police, who at present rarely get leave time or down time—even at the cost of temporarily giving up protection of some remote regions of the country.

— Consolidate police checkpoints into fewer, better defended outposts so they are less vulnerable to being overrun by Taliban ambush. In some cases, remote sensing with technology can partially replace the role of the closed checkpoints.

— Help the Afghan government acquire more battlefield medical evacuation capacity (including with helicopters) as a top priority, so that it can keep more of its wounded forces alive.

— Provide members of the Afghan parliament and other officials modest funds to hire small personal security details so they will make fewer demands on the regular police to protect them.