Reckoning with Defeat: How to Move Forward in Afghanistan

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo by: Getty Images

Defeat is always a possibility in war, but it is not a possibility in the minds of most Americans. Nowhere is this pathology more evident than the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban controls substantial territory and is estimated to threaten 70 percent of Afghanistan.[i] The Afghan government, meanwhile, has influence in only 38 percent of territory.[ii] Additionally, while Al Qaeda’s presence has been greatly reduced from its height pre-invasion, ISIS has gained a foothold in the country and has recently carried out a spate of deadly bombings.[iii] A recent report from the Directorate of National Intelligence warned that the situation in Afghanistan “probably will deteriorate modestly this year in the face of persistent political instability, sustained attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency, unsteady Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) performance, and chronic financial shortfalls.”[iv]

President Donald Trump still has the political capital needed to reshape America’s role in Afghanistan, but he appears dangerously close to owning the same failed strategies of the two administrations prior. In his speech on US strategy in Afghanistan, President Trump proclaimed, “From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”[v] President Trump’s method for achieving these goals appears to be limited to eliminating timelines and a slight influx of combat troops, bringing the total in Afghanistan to 15,000.[vi] Given that the 100,000 American troops of the Obama surge were unable to defeat the Taliban and eliminate terrorist “safe havens” during the years they were in Afghanistan, it seems foolhardy to think President Trump’s far smaller surge will be able to accomplish these same goals.[vii] The failure of the counterinsurgency model to roll back the Taliban and eliminate the terrorist presence in Afghanistan must be acknowledged and learned from, allowing a new strategy to be constructed that focuses on maintaining the what control the Afghan government does have, continuing to disrupt terror groups, and alleviating the immense humanitarian crisis afflicting Afghan civilians. Limiting America’s mission to these three components would focus US resources on achievable objectives that are clearly within US interests.

In pursuit of a self-secured Afghanistan, President Trump should take advantage of the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades, which are designed to train and assist burgeoning security forces like the beleaguered ANSF.[viii] These new brigades are better prepared for training missions and will hopefully be able to reduce Afghan security force’s high desertion rate, which the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found “hurt readiness and moral, and may create security risks.”[ix] Training alone will not assure a usable security force, nor will funding, but combined over the long term, an institution can be built that can create the security conditions necessary for an Afghan government to carry out its basic functions.

Separately, a counterterror strategy should be constructed that does not require American military or intelligence units to engage in capacity building but rather focus solely on neutralizing high priority targets. Counterterror operations in Afghanistan have been successful over the past decade, as no terror attacks on the U.S. have successfully been launched from the country. By limiting the U.S. combat presence to conducting counterterror missions, the U.S. can reduce its expenditures of lives and money, while also mitigating some of the readiness issues that currently plague the military.[x]

President Trump was clear in his Afghanistan speech that military action alone was not the solution in Afghanistan, and he championed the pursuit of “common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives.”[xi] Despite President Trump’s rhetoric on the importance of aiding the people of Afghanistan, his administration has repeatedly proposed extreme cuts to US aid.[xii] To achieve future stability in Afghanistan, humanitarian aid is a necessary interim step for preventing mass death and migration. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 3.3 million Afghans are in need of lifesaving aid in 2018.[xiii] If the goal of the U.S. is to eliminate Afghanistan as a hotbed of terrorism and instability, providing for the basic needs of its people is necessary. The UNOCHA estimates that 2.8 million Afghans in severe need could be assisted with $430 million in international funding.[xiv] For comparison, the U.S. has spent $675 million on the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan, a development program that the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported was “unable to accomplish its overall goals.”[xv] A strategy that limits American involvement in Afghanistan requires the provision of assistance, or risks an escalating humanitarian crisis that will reach far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

President Trump is rapidly approaching a point of no return where he, like his two predecessors, will well and truly own the war in Afghanistan and all of its accompanying ills. But before that time comes, he has the opportunity to acknowledge the failures of the counterinsurgency model and transform the US approach in Afghanistan to a more realistic and practical strategy. Despite the thousands of lives and billions of dollars the U.S. has committed to Afghanistan, there is currently little to show for the sacrifice. The sooner we reckon with that failure and learn our lessons from defeat, the sooner we can refocus on utilizing our soldiers and wealth to the most effective degree possible.




[i] Shoaib Sharifi and Louise Adamou, “Taliban threaten 70% of Afghanistan, BBC finds,” BBC World Service, Jan. 31, 2018,

[ii] “Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel | Quarterly Report to the United States Congress | October 1, 2017 – December 31, 2017,” Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, Feb. 26, 2018,

[iii] Emma Graham-Harrison and Haroon Janjua, “Scores killed in Isis bombing of Kabul news agency and Shia centre,” The Guardian, Dec. 27, 2018,; Michael Safi, “Isis claims attack on Save the Children office in Afghanistan,” The Guardian, Jan. 24, 2018,

[iv] Daniel Coats, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Feb. 13, 2018,—Unclassified-SSCI.pdf, 22.

[v] “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan,” The New York Times, Aug. 21, 2017,

[vi] Barack Obama, “Transcript of Obama speech on Afghanistan,” CNN, Dec. 2, 2009,

[vii] “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan,” The New York Times; Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “Up to 1,000 more U.S. troops could be headed to Afghanistan this spring,” Washington Post, Jan 21 2018,

[viii] C. Todd Lopez, “Security force assistance brigades to free brigade combat teams from advise, assist mission,” U.S. Army, May 18, 2017,

[ix] “Afghan Trainees Absent Without Leave in the United States,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, October 2017,

[x] Joe Gould, “Congressional hawks want straight talk on military readiness problems,” Defense News, Jan. 29, 2018,

[xi] “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan,” The New York Times.

[xii] Carol, Morello, “Foreign aid cuts proposed, but ‘friends’ might be protected,” Washington Post, Feb. 12, 2018,

[xiii] “2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Dec. 2017,, 15.

[xiv] “Afghanistan: First multi-year plan requests US$430 million to bring life-saving aid to 2.8 million people,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jan. 15, 2018,

[xv] “Quarterly Report to the U.S. Congress,” Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Jan. 30, 2018,, 25.

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