Post-withdrawal Strategy of the U.S. in Afghanistan
This year marks the 17th anniversary since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. The war on global terror has claimed the lives of 2,216 Americans and left more than 20,000 service members permanently injured (U.S. DoD 2018). Half of Afghanistan’s territory remains under full or partial control of various insurgent groups. The Afghan forces are understaffed and taking unprecedented number of casualties. American leaders have always demonstrated their uncompromising commitment to security in Afghanistan by sending thousands of troops and spending billion in aid. However, the war in Afghanistan has become a sore and controversial topic among many Americans. The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been under the political and public scrutiny for many years. It looks like that President Trump is on the path to change the America’s long-standing approach. Last year, the United States government has officially began discussing options to outsource its combat role in Afghanistan (Landler et. al 2017).
The OEF military campaign officially started on October 7, 2001 in retaliation to 9/11 terrorist attacks. The first year of combat operations was marked by aggressive use of air assets to target al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds (Military Times 2016). During the initial phase of the conflict, there was an overwhelming public support regarding the use of American troops in support of the OEF. In 2001, 89% of Americans believed that the United States did not make a mistake by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan (Newport 2014). From 2001 until 2003, the number of deployed American servicemen in Afghanistan remained under the 20,000-mark. Military units were primarily tasked with advising functions and conducting small-scale special operations (Military Times 2016). The number of U.S. personnel on the ground as well as the nature of combat operations have drastically changed with the introduction of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2003, under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council (NATO 2018). From 2003 until 2010, ISAF executed a three-stage strategy that was intended to expand [2003-2006] the Afghan government-controlled territory, consequently “stabilize” [2007-2010] the re-captured areas, then fully transition [2010-2014] the security responsibility to the Afghan national government. The latter period of combat operations was highlighted by mass number of U.S. and allied casualties (see figure 1). The number of deployed DoD personnel in support of OEF and ISAF missions remained relatively stable during the presidency of George W. Bush. As Barak Obama took the presidential office in 2009, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was revised (CFR 2018). The Obama administration pursued the deployment of more troops in the face of stagnant progress attributed to rising insurgency. Number of American soldiers in Afghanistan was gradually increased from around 30,000 in 2009 to more than 100,000 in 2011 (see figure 2). Following the decision to ramp up the troop numbers in 2009, President Obama stated: “the 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans" (Garamone 2009). Large combat force supposed to speed up the transition process and set the stage for the complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops. It is important to note that Obama’s decision to escalate the war efforts in Afghanistan was the result of rising “anti-war” sentiment. As the fighting hit its peak in the far Eastern land, political and public support for the war has flipped. By 2014, only 49% of Americans believed that the United States did not make a mistake by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan (Newport 2014). It was perceived that increased number of boots on the ground would lead to a quick and decisive victory. The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan was officially announced in 2011 (CFR 2018). In the span of five years following the announcement, the number of deployed troops in Afghanistan went down from over 100,000 in 2011 to 8,400 at the end of 2016 (see figure 2). Since 2011, the U.S. military did not undertake in any major offensive operations in Afghanistan. Their mission has been limited to advising and strengthening the operational capacity of Afghan security forces.
Current Situation in Afghanistan:
Donald Trump has always advocated for the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. In one of his tweets from 2013, he stated: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA” (Trump 2013). Historically, Trump’s (2012, 2013) policy stance regarding the war in Afghanistan has been consistent. However, following his appointment as the President of the United States, Trump reversed his position regarding this matter. On his first national security address in 2017, President Trump pledged to maintain the existing strategy for the war in Afghanistan (Johnson 2017). Without a doubt, President Trump was pressured by his then national security advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis not to stick with his initial plan, which presumed the removal of remaining 8,000 soldiers from Afghanistan (Johnson 2017). Administration officials feared that in the latter case, Afghanistan could turn into a second Iraq. The U.S. officials assessed that the Afghan national government was still weak and vulnerable to effectively fight insurgency. There are 8,475 U.S. servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan in support of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission as of November 2018 (NATO 2018). The primary task of the U.S. military contingent remains the same – advising Afghan security forces. The direction and magnitude of the conflict has considerably changed during the past 17 years. Al-Qaeda and Taliban are no longer the only enemies that coalition forces face. According to the latest estimates, more than 20 terrorist groups are currently engaged in insurgency operations in Afghanistan (Cooper 2018). During the past couple of years, the Islamic State has emerged as the second largest active insurgent group with 3,000 estimated fighters (Cooper 2018). The security situation in Afghanistan is extremely volatile. The Afghan government does not have a full control over its territory. According to the latest report from the office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR, 2018), the Afghan government has not made any progress in expanding its territorial control since 2016. Despite the long-lasting efforts, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are still understaffed and insufficiently trained. SIGAR (2018, 65) reports that ANDSF’s size has slightly increased since last quarter to 314,242 personnel, but the force lost 8,500 soldiers since April of 2017. The ANDSF is at only 89.3% of its goal strength of 352,000, which translates into the shortage of 37,758 servicemen (SIGAR 2018). On the other hand, the number of Taliban fighters have been increasing. In 2014, the U.S. officials estimated the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to be around 20,000 (Kube 2018). According to the same government source, in 2018, the number of estimated insurgents exceeded 60,000. Since 2017, the Afghan government stopped publicly issuing casualty reports. According to various ANDSF affiliated sources, the casualty count is significantly higher in 2018 compared to the previous year (Nordland 2018).Reports about high number of combat losses are consistent with the recent statement made by Secretary Mattis, which indicated that Afghan forces sustained over 1,000 casualties during the months of August and September of this year (Babb 2018). Taliban has been very proactive and efficient in their latest operations. The strategic city with almost 300,000 residents located in the southeastern Afghanistan was completely overrun by insurgents several months ago (Nordland, Ngu, and Abed 2018). During the offensive, Taliban fighters were able to destroy and kill nearly all soldiers stationed at an ANDSF special forces [commando] base in Ghazni (Nordland 2018). The latter event demonstrates the complete lack of operational capacity on the part of Afghans. Trump administration urged Afghan leadership to retreat from sparsely populated parts of the country in light of increased attacks by Taliban forces on remote ANDSF outposts and bases (Gibbons-Neff and Cooper 2018). The latest strategy demonstrates that ANDSF and coalition forces are “cornered” and on the path of retreat. According to the U.S. government’s most conservative assessment, the Taliban controls or contests 44% of districts in Afghanistan (see figure 3). It is likely that official estimates underreport the actual situation on the ground. An attack that killed the police chief of Kandahar province, General Abdul Raziq Achakzai on October 18, 2018 also demonstrates the deteriorating security environment across the entire country (Fox 2018).
What is next?
President Trump has always been critical of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He often advocated for the complete withdrawal of American troops. In fact, President Trump used his “anti-war” rhetoric very frequently during the 2016 presidential campaign (Pramuk 2017). However, it is unlikely that he will commit to his promises. It seems like the President was convinced by his advisors to adhere to the strategy set by the Obama administration. The current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan presumes providing military [advising] and government capacity building aid. Although, Trump has been aggressively pursuing some of his major campaign promises – immigration and healthcare. He can be characterized as the man of his word. As many of his supporters say: “he says everything like it is.” Last year, President Trump’s advisers started looking at alternative options to achieve the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan without the involvement of American troops (Landler, Schmitt, and Gordon 2017). “Privatization” of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan was presented as one of the possible options. The idea was quickly dismissed by the former national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary Mattis (Landler, Schmitt, and Gordon 2017). President Trump’s advisers prefer increasing the number of American units in Afghanistan in hopes to reverse the territorial gains achieved by the Taliban during the past several years. Trump seems to be divided regarding this issue. On one side, he needs to keep his promise; on the other hand, abandoning Afghanistan at this moment will result in almost certain victory by Taliban. Talks about “privatization” of war have resurfaced several months ago. Some of the leading experts in the private military industry have been closely working with the Trump administration officials as well as Afghans (Mashal 2018). Americans seem to be open to the idea. It is a perfect compromising point for President Trump. Private army allows the United States to accomplish its mission in Afghanistan without the direct involvement of its troops. However, it is still expected that the U.S. will maintain a small number of special operations units and CIA personnel on the ground. The Afghan government in the face of President Ashraf Ghani has been very critical of “privatization” idea since it first surfaced. Earlier last month, President Ghani openly criticized the proposed plan by explicitly declaring that: “foreign mercenaries will never be allowed in this country” (Mashal 2018). Ghani’s national security adviser reiterated his president’s point by stating that the Afghan government will never allow fighting terrorism to become a for-profit business (Mashal 2018). The Afghan government’s opposition is by far the biggest obstacle in the way of “privatization.” However, it seems like that the obstruction is exclusively attributed to President Ghani himself. Afghanistan is set to have next presidential election in May 2019. On November 1st, Ghani publicly announced that he will be seeking re-election next year (Najafizada 2018). The list of other candidates is not available yet. President Ghani is viewed as controversial figure. Under his presidency, Afghanistan experienced surge in militant-led activities, civilian casualties, alarming growth of ethnic division, and political infighting (Dawn 2018). It is very likely that President Ghani won’t be reelected for the second term. Afghan people are not satisfied with the performance of current administration. The results of a recent Gallup survey revealed the unprecedented level of pessimism among the people of Afghanistan (Dawn 2018). Even if Ghani gets reelected, he can certainly be pressured by the United States into accepting the terms of new strategy. Three quarters of Afghanistan’s national budget comes from the United States (Najafizada 2018).
Considerations and Proposals:
Based on the preliminary analysis, there is a high likelihood that President Trump’s administration will seek to outsource the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. The United States is actively looking into all available options that would allow to achieve its strategic mission in Afghanistan without the direct involvement of the U.S. personnel. Currently, there are 8,475 U.S. servicemembers fulfilling the advisory role in support of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. ACADEMI has been one of the main security solution providers for the United States government during the past two decades. Thousands of our staff members guard U.S. embassies, train federal employees, and drill various special forces units from around the world on daily basis. Based on the assumption that the United States government will open a bid for a private military contractor to fulfill its mission responsibilities under the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, we advance the following proposals:
- Proposal 1: Deploy 8,000 ACADEMI Specialists to Fulfill the Advisory Mission in Afghanistan
We propose to deploy at least 8,000 ACADEMI experts to Afghanistan in the capacity of military advisers to ANDSF. Most part of ACADEMI staff will be stationed in Kabul, Kandahar, and Laghman. These locations currently host major U.S. training facilities under the NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (see figure 4). ACADEMI will push to acquire [free of charge] existing infrastructure and military hardware currently located/stationed at these sites. As of today, NATO (2018) has 16,229 troops in Afghanistan. Half of those troops come from the United States. We expect NATO to maintain at least 8,000 servicemembers at training facilities in Mazari-e Sharif, Herat, and Kabul. Hence, ACADEMI along with NATO partners will still maintain 16,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is enough to meet the requirements of current mission. Further, we do not expect to have expertise or staff shortage. The vast majority of ACADEMI’s employees are experienced combat veterans. Further, it is certain that unmatched salaries and benefits [compared to the current U.S. federal payrate/benefits] offered by ACADEMI will attract highly skilled and experienced pool of new applicants. Our 4,000-acre flagship training center in North Carolina along with three other facilities in California, Connecticut, and Maryland are ready to fulfill any additional training/staffing demands.
It is highly likely that ACADEMI assets will be required to participate in small-scale combat operations along with ANDSF units. Currently, all special operations involving American. troops are covered by the U.S. air assets. Close air support plays the most critical role in any type of combat operation in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the United States will provide air support and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) personnel to support our missions.
- Proposal 2: Deploy 20,000 ACADEMI Specialists to Fulfill the Advisory Mission and Engage in Limited Combat Operations
We propose to deploy at least 20,000 ACADEMI specialists to fulfill the advisory and limited combat mission in Afghanistan. Under this plan, 8,000 advisers will be stationed in training facilities in Mazari-e Sharif, Herat, and Kabul. Remaining 12,000 ACADEMI specialists [ACADEMI Combat Task Force] will be embedded to combat-ready ANDSF units and engage in special operations against insurgents. As of 2018, ACADEMI owns more than 50 transport/attack helicopters and planes (FAA Registry 2018). At least 50% of our air assets should be transferred to Afghanistan to support the mission of ACADEMI Combat Task Force (CTF). Further, ACADEMI needs to train a large group JTAC’s that will be able to coordinate close air support missions led by the Afghan Air Force. Afghanistan’s air force has recently demonstrated its ability to independently conduct precision air strikes using laser-guided bombs (Rempfer 2018). The fleet of Afghanistan’s A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircrafts is expected to increase as well. This proposal allows ACADEMI to continue strengthening the capacity of ANDSF, while also applying constant pressure on insurgents.
It will be difficult to train and deploy 20,000 security specialists within the short timeframe. It is likely that the professional quality of applicants will drop in the process of aggressive recruitment to meet the quantity demands. We might further encounter logistical issues related to transportation and placement of large number of ACADEMI personnel in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the United States will be able to provide us with airlift capability.
- Proposal 3: Do Not Pursue the Deployment of ACADEMI Assets to Afghanistan.
We propose to not seek the deployment of ACADEMI assets to Afghanistan in support of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. The deployment of large contingent of ACADEMI assets to Afghanistan will put logistical and operational strains on activities under other contracts, which will likely result in poor performance and loss of customer confidence.
It is highly likely that the United States will move on with the plan to “privatize” its mission in Afghanistan. NATO’s Resolute Support Mission does not have a set deadline. Considering the current security situation in Afghanistan, we are looking at a renewable multi-year contract with enormous profit generating potential. Our main competitors such as G4S and DynCorps are already conducting project feasibility assessments. This contract has the potential to become the biggest single revenue source for ACADEMI going into the next several decades.
To ensure the long-term competitiveness and profitability of our company, we propose to adopt Policy Proposal 1 with the following considerations:
- Negotiate the procurement/transfer of weapons, hardware, aircraft, and vehicles from the United States [which can be further used in our operations in other parts of the world].
- Negotiate the full transfer of existing U.S. training facilities in Kabul, Kandahar, and Laghman.
- Negotiate the gradual expansion of ACADEMI contingent in Afghanistan.
- Train a group JTAC’s that will be able to coordinate close air support missions led by the Afghan Air Force.
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