WASHINGTON — If you search for the metrics to winning the war in Afghanistan, you will get plenty of results, plenty of metrics — and no victory declared.
And that may be the way it will be, indefinitely. At best, the U.S. is seeking success, not victory, experts are now saying.
The U.S.-led coalition is deep into a unique, historical winter offensive in Afghanistan, a strategy in large part designed to keep the Taliban and other foes off balance to prevent them from resting and preparing for the traditional massive spring attacks. While the concept it strong, the motivation is suspect, some say.
“What the Army and Air Force are trying to do is to find some new thing that they have tried to get (movement),” said Loren Thompson, a defense scholar at the non-profit Lexington Institute. “That is what the winter offense is, a different approach that is to throw the enemy off balance…. by keeping the war going.”
In March 2009 President Obama identified clear strategic objectives for Afghanistan: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and to prevent its return, as way as ensuring the Afghan government can stand on its own.
The metrics grew to include how much territory do al-Qaida and the Taliban control within Afghanistan and how capable are the Afghan security forces as to when the U.S. “wins” the war. Holding territory is one of the key metrics now being used to determine success, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said.
By that metric alone, the U.S. is not winning.
The Afghan government was assessed by the U.S. military to control or influence just 59.7 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts as of Feb. 20, a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
That report said that “no significant progress” had been made in 2017 toward Afghan authorities’ stated goal of bringing 80 percent of the country’s population under government control amid a Taliban insurgency.
It also said there was little evidence to support comments that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., and other top U.S. officials made late last year, arguing that U.S.-backed troops had “turned the corner” and gained momentum in their fight against the Taliban.
“Overall, based on available data, it is too soon to judge whether the new strategy has broken the stalemate in the fight against the Taliban and other extremists,” acting Inspector General Glenn A. Fine wrote in his introduction to the report. “During the quarter, there was no change in the percentage of the population or the number of districts under the control of the Afghan government, and there was no progress towards a reconciliation process with the Taliban.”
Last June, the U.S. was not winning, Defense Secretary James Mattis said then to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He promised to “correct this as soon as possible” and called for thousands more U.S. troops to reset the momentum and end the stalemate.
The new strategy became know as “R4+S,” which stands for “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.” The strategy change included giving more authority to forces on the ground and taking more aggressive action against Taliban fighters.
Going again before Congress in February, three months into the winter offensive, Mattis was only marginally more upbeat.
“I think there’s got to be a time that you would say to President Trump: ‘We have done all we can do.’ Blood and treasure is lost and we have nothing to show that we’ve gained, except we still have trouble with the leaders of Afghanistan having sex with little boys,” Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C) told Mattis when he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee.
“It’s been a long, hard slog, and I recognize that,” Mattis said then.
The U.S. military had roughly 14,000 troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2017. The Obama administration said it had about 8,400 troops there in 2016.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings Institution, said the historic winter offense has “not changed the optics or the reality of the battlefield dynamic.”
“They are hoping something will break that is out of control, that the Taliban will make a lot of mistakes, which they have not done,” she said. She said the bombing that is the crux of the winter offensive is “certainly something to contend with” and that some Taliban units are now likely weaker. Whether that means greater, longtime security is unclear, she said.
Felbab-Brown also said the goal of stabilizing the Afghan government, another metric, remains elusive.
“The U.S. and others have a lot of pressure (regarding) the summer (Afghan) elections and part of the effort in winter is to create momentum,” she said, noting that the Afghan government “dysfunctional politics” make that its own challenge.
One critical chunk of the Trump strategy—as with the Bush and Obama strategies —is getting Pakistan to cooperate. Pakistan has long worked to undermine stability in Afghanistan, supporting terrorist fighters and financing and providing them sanctuary. That is where silence on timelines for withdrawal may have an important effect: if Pakistan comes to believe it cannot wait America out, and America continues applying pressure like canceling military aid, Islamabad may more fully cooperate, analysts said.
The regional strategy also underscores the new emphasis on closer ties with India, analysts said.
At first, it looked liked the U.S. learned from history when it went into Afghanistan in 2001. There was great, initial success through a combination of Central Intelligence Agency operatives and 5th Special Forces Group Green Berets fighting alongside the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.
Then the war descended into a prolonged insurgency and for more than a decade. U.S. conventional forces struggled to find ways to conduct counterinsurgency, while special operations forces focused on the direct targeting of high-profile insurgents, terrorists, and their associated networks. The Taliban, however, remained a rural insurgency where measuring success along these lines of effort was difficult, and the top-down approach was ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. It became reminiscent of the Green Berets fighting against a similarly rural insurgency during the Vietnam War.
Now there is a new strategy and new metrics. Observers remain skeptical.
Felbab-Brown said the situation is “very nasty” and “it’s not a happy outcome.”
Said Thompson: “There is no light at the end of this tunnel.”