For one and a half decades, the United States and its partners in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have waged a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, year after year, the Taliban has staved off defeat. One assumption in U.S. policy has been an unwavering faith that the United States can ultimately force an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan. Early in the conflict, the country sought outright defeat of the Taliban. Later, as the feasibility of that objective was called into question, it embraced a more modest goal of leaving Afghanistan with a security force of its own, capable of defending the country against the Taliban. The objectives may have changed, but accompanying troop extensions have anchored the United States’ commitment to its ambitions. Following that pattern, in July of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the latest troop extension, guaranteeing that the next U.S. president will inherit approximately 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
By a variety of indicators, ISAF and the Afghan government it supports are losing the war. According to data recently released by the Pentagon to one of the authors, violence in Afghanistan following Obama’s 2009 troop surge has remained at levels vastly exceeding those observed during the initial years of the war. Meanwhile, measures of insurgent activity, from kidnappings to weapons sales, have remained at levels at or above those observed when the United States “surged” troops into the country. Perhaps most alarmingly, since 2010, when ISAF began tracking combat outcomes on a consistent basis, the number of insurgent attacks resulting in the deaths of Afghan police officers and soldiers have continued to steadily climb.
These trends call into question the logic of further extending the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For years, available evidence has suggested that decisive victory over the Taliban is not possible. Outside of permanently stationing forces in Afghanistan, it is unclear that the United States can prevent the Taliban’s eventual forceful reclamation of large swathes of Afghan