NATO Forces

Of Course Troop Cuts Won’t Affect the Mission

Votel says troop reduction won’t hurt Afghan mission, which is true, since he doesn’t know what that mission is.

President Obama’s decision to leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 has raised questions. It’s more than the 5,500 that were part of the plan. But it’s less than the 9,800 in the country. Will that affect the US/NATO mission there?

Of course not, according to General Joseph Votel, who’s in charge of the US Army’s Central Command (CENTCOM). Part of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) is Afghanistan. Oh, and Syria and Iraq. So the man cares about what the Islamic State is doing pretty much everywhere.

“I don’t think the reductions that we are taking are going to impact the principal missions that we are doing, particularly with respect to the Afghan security forces.”

The question of Afghan security forces came up because their casualty numbers are up. Way up. So that’s a problem.

18 JAN 2004 - Maj. Seth Hoffer with the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion talks to local town leaders at Pitav, Afghanistan, to find out their needs and how they can help them achieve these needs on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004. PSYOP and Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) members made a trip into the Mraawara valley, near Asadabad, Afghanistan, to talk to local town leaders. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Horace Murray) (Released)

18 JAN 2004 – Maj. Seth Hoffer with the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion talks to local town leaders at Pitav, Afghanistan, to find out their needs and how they can help them achieve these needs on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004. PSYOP and Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) members made a trip into the Mraawara valley, near Asadabad, Afghanistan, to talk to local town leaders. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Horace Murray) (Released)

And Votel’s right, that troop cuts won’t affect the mission in Afghanistan. Because Votel, like everyone else involved in the graveyard of planning, doesn’t know what that mission is. Which is the real problem.

That’s not a shot at Votel or his abilities to command. By all accounts, he’s a fine officer and leader who I’m sure will continue to do great things. But the mission in Afghanistan has been muddled for years.

Which came to light in brutal fashion in Kunduz last October, when US Special Operations forces turned the MSF hospital there into a parking lot. Part of the findings by the Americans after that event was that leaders on the ground weren’t too sure about their mission. Which led to confusion and bad decisions.

Along with the announcement about troop numbers came new guidelines for US forces regarding the Taliban. The Americans are now free to target the Taliban directly. Which is a shift from previous rules of engagement that only allowed such targeting in self defense or if Afghan forces needed the support.

Still, what’s the point of that? Peace? Because the Taliban have refused to sit down for talks for months now.

Because a bombing campaign with no clear goals is just going to lead to more pointless violence. That’s not a statement on war in general, that’s a statement about a tactic not supporting a strategy. Because the strategy doesn’t exist.

Maybe the mission is counter-terrorism. According to the Washington Post, around 3,000 of the 9,800 troops stationed in Afghanistan are tasked with going after Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The nature of military operations being what it is, though, at any point in time US forces could be supporting either of the two missions in Afghanistan: train and support Afghan forces, or shoot terrorists in the face.

So we’re back to objectives: I think we’re back to “make the homeland safe from terrorists,” and we’ve put “make sure Afghanistan is a stable country” way on a back burner somewhere. If counter-terror is the mission, those 8,400 should be enough. Until it’s not again, but that’s a problem for the next Commander in Chief.


Also published on Medium.