The Way Forward in Afghanistan

Andy Thomchick /

The lack of a clear strategy for Afghanistan post-2014 endangers the gains that the United States and its Afghan allies have made in the past decade.

As 2014 draws nearer and the troop drawdown continues, the U.S. is entering into a new era of strategic engagement with Afghanistan. A panel of experts discussed the best way forward in Afghanistan at The Heritage Foundation on January 18.

During his second inauguration speech, President Obama declared that “[a] decade of war is now ending.” Sadly, the President is out of touch with present realities. The war in Afghanistan against Islamic extremists is far from over. Whether the President wants to admit it or not, we are at war and will be for a long time.

Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute and author of Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields argues that there is a lack of long-term, strategic-level thinking concerning Afghanistan and South Asia. Afghanistan should be viewed within the larger context of South Asia regional stability and the global balance of power. If we turn our backs on Afghanistan and fail to leave a sufficient troop presence, then Afghanistan may become a terrorist training ground once again.

The Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 means that the U.S. will increasingly rely on U.S. special operations forces (SOF) to continue the fight against the Taliban and various other extremist groups in South Asia. The number of U.S. conventional troops that will remain in Afghanistan post-2014 is still being debated, but the recent figures emanating from the White House—anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000—are inadequate. Without sufficient support from conventional forces, the capabilities of SOF would be severely limited.

There are five “SOF Truths,” one of which states that “[m]ost special operations require non-SOF assistance.” SOFs are strategic-level assets that work in conjunction with conventional forces to accomplish strategic objectives. SOFs do not have the numbers, firepower, mobility, or logistical support to single-handedly conduct a war without the support of conventional units.

Bill Roggio, senior editor of The Long War Journal, argues that Afghanistan is a theater in a larger war that spans the entire Islamic world. Roggio contends that a force of at least 30,000 troops would be needed in Afghanistan to maintain stability and to facilitate effective special operations missions.

Regarding the role of SOF, Heritage’s James Carafano says it best:

[S]pecial operations are ‘special.’ Executed at the right time and place, they can surprise the enemy and accomplish an extremely valuable mission—be it rescuing hostages or bagging bin Laden. But when faced with a large, well-defended enemy, special ops cannot do it all.

To suggest that special forces can replace conventional forces to meet America’s national security challenges is like arguing that if New York City gave SWAT teams more whiz-bang weaponry, the Big Apple could send home its beat cops and detectives.

President Obama may be looking for the quickest and easiest way to extract the U.S. from the Afghan War. But as Heritage’s Lisa Curtis explained at the January 18 event, “President Obama and his advisors instead should be asking themselves whether he wants to be remembered as the President who gave up on Afghanistan and thus helped to embolden another wave of terror attacks against the U.S.”

Andy Thomchick is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: