Between Christmas and New Year’s, I led a congressional delegation to Kabul, Afghanistan, where I met with some of our soldiers, and with senior U.S. military and diplomatic leaders to discuss what progress we are or are not making in that war.
What I found is alarming: First, we need to abandon the Obama administration’s false narrative that it has been able to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, now down to 8,400, because our strategy is “working.” Quite the opposite is true; our strategy is not working. The Taliban are gaining ground and Afghan security forces have suffered heavy casualties. So long as the Taliban sees a path to victory and is gaining territory, as it currently is, it will choose to fight rather than negotiate a peace deal.
As for the troop levels, the Obama administration knows that its self-imposed reduction to an 8,400-troop cap is unrealistic. The reality is that it is playing a shell game with the numbers. The trick is that the Obama administration has reduced our military presence by substituting civilian contractors, who are now performing the identical tasks that previously belonged to the soldiers they replaced. In fact, civilian contractors now greatly outnumber U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan at a much higher cost to the taxpayers and with unequal results.
One example concerns U.S. Army helicopter units. Flight crews are arriving in Afghanistan without their maintenance personnel to help keep under the troop cap. Meanwhile, their maintenance personnel, trained, ready and still on the payroll, are sitting in the United States, with no aircraft to maintain, while taxpayers are paying comparatively more for their civilian replacements to do the same work in a combat zone.
Second: We need to change the rules of engagement (ROE). ROE are the guidelines under which U.S. military forces are permitted to engage an enemy. Under the current ROE, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is free to target al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, but they do not have the same latitude in attacking the Taliban, who pose an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan. The current ROE only allows the U.S. military to target Taliban fighters if they pose a “direct and immediate” threat to U.S. military forces. If they are a threat to Afghan security forces alone, we cannot target them, despite the fact that we are in Afghanistan to support the security forces of the Afghan government. The ROE were recently relaxed, but not nearly enough. They now allow U.S. forces to target the Taliban only if a provincial capital is in danger of falling to the enemy.
I believe Congress needs to address the ROE issue by modifying the current Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which is the legal basis for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The good news is that the Obama administration has long sought revisions to the AUMF, but the bad news is that addressing the Taliban threat is not one of the revisions it has sought.
This spring, the Taliban will, once again, begin to assemble its forces for the start of the fighting season. The U.S. military must have the appropriate ROE to target them as soon as they begin to mass their fighters and long before they can pose a direct threat to our forces or those of our Afghan allies, if we ever hope to bring this long war to an end.
Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. military history and given how this war has been conducted, between artificial troop caps and an ROE that makes winning seem impossible, it’s not hard to see why. The incoming Trump administration must be honest with the American people about how the war is going; stop playing the political numbers game with U.S. troop levels; and provide our military with an ROE that reflects a strategy for victory and not defeat.
U.S. Representative Mike Coffman is a Marine Corps combat veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Original article appeared here: http://www.denverpost.com/2017/01/18/trump-should-update-military-policy-in-afghanistan/