Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller on Tuesday announced that Trump had ordered a reduction in the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving 2,500 in both countries prior to Biden’s inauguration. This is good news and long overdue — but also insufficient. What is most needed is a complete end to the military mission and a total withdrawal.
While it may sound good on paper to keep 2,500 troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, doing so will perpetuate the decades’ long military failure. I served on the ground in both countries during my Army career and could not more emphatically declare that such a small number of combat troops are woefully insufficient to accomplish any outcome of strategic utility to the United States.
It should be a non-negotiable requirement that any combat deployment of U.S. personnel abroad include a clearly defined mission and assign a force of sufficient strength to accomplish militarily-attainable tasks in direct support to the mission. There is presently little more than a general and opaque mission and there are no identifiable military tasks which would signal mission accomplishment.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is formally called Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, and the Department of Defense claims two missions:
1) conducting counter terrorism operations against numerous opponents; and
2) “training, advising, and assisting” Afghan troops.
It is an indispensable requirement in the armed forces that any mission — whether for a small infantry squad or a four-star regional command — designate an overall objective and include militarily accomplishable tasks that directly support the accomplishment of the mission. There are no such tasks specified in the Pentagon’s Afghanistan mission. That is a real problem for our troops tasked to fight the Afghan war and one of the biggest reasons why so many of our forever wars drift year after year without resolution or end.
The reason is simple: if our senior civilian and uniformed leaders set objectives that can’t be met (or if there are no specified tasks that our troops are required to accomplish), no one can say, at any time, whether the missions are great successes — or miserable failures.
Operation Freedom’s Sentinel merely requires our troops to “conduct” operations against designated terrorist organizations but never articulates an objective. Likewise, the requirement to “train” Afghan troops does not include a standard and thus, there is no objective standard by which to ascertain whether the training mission has been successful or not — and thus advocates of these wars are free to perpetually claim it is “premature” to end the mission because there are no standards by which their mission can be measured.
But one doesn’t have to be a military or foreign policy expert to see, plainly, that these missions have never been successful — and since the troops are not required to achieve any specific military objectives — will never end. We can “conduct” counter terrorism operations forever; we can “train” Iraqi or Afghan troops indefinitely. But performing these strategically superfluous duties does not keep our country safe. To the contrary, it degrades our ability to defend the nation against legitimate threats in the future.
The United States spends an extraordinary amount of money every year to perpetuate these unnecessary and unsuccessful military operations in the Middle East — upwards of $70 billion a year by some estimates. In order to maintain current troop levels, the Pentagon must routinely set aside three times the number of troops deployed (so that the next rotation of troops is trained and ready prior to deployment and the rotation that comes out of the deployment is able to rest and refit). This dynamic diverts a great deal of focus and training from our force away from great power competition.
The bottom line is that there is little gain to our country to merely reduce the number of troops we deploy into war zones abroad. The missions are inherently unsuccessful and unnecessary for our security. Despite what some think, perpetuating these conflicts not only fails to keep us safe, it diminishes our ability to defend against legitimate threats to our security in the future. Whether it is under President Trump or President-elect Biden, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to end.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for defense priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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