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Realism and Restraint

Afghan Study Group’s New Report Would Guarantee Failure

Afghan Study Group
A Soldier assists in the laborious and delicate art of rigging and packing a parachute. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Benjamin Vilchez).

When a report comes out of Washington that has been co-authored by a who’s who group of, among others, former Secretaries of Defense, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassadors, and U.S. Senators, it’s a good bet the results are solid. Unfortunately, in the case of the recently released Afghan Study Group’s report to Congress, this stable full of eminent members produced a policy paper that, if followed, would replicate the previous 20 years of costly, failed war – and cement that failure well into the future.

The congressionally mandated study group was formed in April 2020 with the charge to, “consider the implications of [President Trump’s February 2020] peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan” and then make policy recommendations for Congress and the new Administration.

That is an appropriate charter, and those areas of study are factors Congress and the White House need to consider. Regrettably, however, the commission was filled with many of the very architects of America’s failed Afghan policies of the past two decades.

Their “new” recommendations look disturbingly similar to the policies that produced so much failure over the past two decades. Fortunately, there are superior, logic-based alternatives available to the Biden Administration for implementation.

Though there are many problems with the Afghan Study Group report, none are more alarming than the first of the group’s five “suite of comprehensive actions.” For any strategy to be useful to the United States, the declared end state must be achievable, cost-effective, and result in a benefit for the United States. The end state offered by the Afghan Study Group meets none of these requirements.

The criteria they propose would effectively guarantee the failure of the past 20 years would be extended into perpetuity.  The reason: the authors state the war can only end when a number of virtually impossible tasks have been accomplished.

For example, they suggest the U.S. must continue to fight until the emergence of an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state with the governance, stability, and security forces to prevent al-Qaeda…and other terrorist groups from attacking the United States and its allies and to contain other potential challenges to U.S. and allied security and interests, including those associated with illicit narcotics.”

More than 20 years since the initial fall of the Taliban, however, the Afghan government remains a fractious, corrupt administration that has thus far proven incapable of producing credible governance. Their national security forces have control of less than half its own territory, and despite more than nearly two decades of concerted effort, Afghanistan remains the world’s leading producer of illicit narcotics. These outcomes should have caught none of these authors by surprise.

Almost 12 years ago, before then-President Obama made the decision to launch the Afghan surge, I published a study in which I observed that, “in a world without constraints, the United States government would desire to defeat the Taliban, fully eradicate the al Qaeda network, establish a functioning democratic government, introduce a sustainable economy, provide for women’s rights… and leave Afghanistan in the near future as a viable state, able and willing to live with its neighbors in peace.” The world, however, was very much constrained.

What I argued we must avoid at all costs, however, was the danger of falling “victim to the belief that we can accomplish in Afghanistan whatever we want simply by declaring our intentions.” That warning was as sound in 2009 as it is today. If we are to avoid another 12 years of predictable failure in Afghanistan, we must reject the same strategies that have failed for decades and make a clean break with the past.

First, we have to acknowledge that American combat power has never, does not now, and never will produce a military victory in Afghanistan. The problems in Afghanistan are primarily political and cultural in nature and involve multiple groups within Afghanistan and other states in the region. The ones who must live with the outcome are the only ones who can bring this war to an end.

Second, American national security is not dependent on keeping U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Our security from terrorist attacks worldwide is preserved by our global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity, paired with an unmatched ability to project power to strike any direct threat to our country, regardless of where the threat emerges.

Lastly, pegging the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan to a successful peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government is not only unnecessary, it is unwise. The February 2020 deal struck between the Taliban and Trump Administration successfully reduced the risk to U.S. troops and paved the way for our final withdrawal by May

There was never a requirement for the parties to reach a final settlement prior to our departure. Unilaterally changing that deal now runs the risk of making American troops once again the target of Taliban attacks. We should not sacrifice the live or limb of one single additional American troop to an unnecessary war.

As critical, so long as the U.S. military continues to guarantee the security of the Afghan government, Kabul will be less willing to make the hard compromises necessary to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. We have given our best and brightest – and hundreds of billions of our citizens’ dollars – for two decades. It is time for those who live in and around Afghanistan to take the final responsibility for ending this war.

Daniel L. Davis is a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times and the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” The views shared in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any group. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. 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.



  1. Lon S. Pyeatt

    February 11, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Mr. Davis,

    Thanks for your superb and concise assessment of the Afghan Study Group’s ignorant conclusion on the war. Their effort loudly echoes Albert Einstein’s oft quoted definition of insanity. Although some would say my agreement with your view dishonors those who fought in this war, I absolutely disagree. They fought because it was their duty to do so. And they fought for a just cause to help bring some sanity and peace to many Afghans tired of the countless despots and tribal leaders who keep Afghanistan in the Dark Ages. Finally, if for no other reason, they fought to protect their brothers and sisters who did the tough work. It is far past time to bring them home and focus on a strategy that doesn’t obligate our brave warriors in a war they can never win. Thank you for continuing to serve the interests of our country and the bravest of the brave willing to go in harm’s way to protect it.

    Scott Pyeatt
    In Memory of Sergeant Lucas Todd Pyeatt, USMC
    KIA – Kajaki, Afghanistan, 5 Feb 2011

  2. Tony Miller

    February 12, 2021 at 10:09 am

    Another Gray-Beard assessment with the same old recommendations. Fresh ideas from innovative officers combined with current field experience that look at all promising are always thrown to “the gray-beards” for review as a matter of practice. Guess what the feedback ALWAYS is? No, that’s not the way we did it; rejected! So here we gather the dynasty of failed decisionmakers to do a review and present the same old conclusions. Read Article I section 8 of the US Constitution. There’s a good reason that Congress is obligated to MAINTAIN a Navy and HAVE THE ABILITY TO RAISE AN ARMY. That actually questions the constitutional validity of the 1947 National Defense Act doesn’t it? The Navy (and Marine Corps) is designed to be ‘double parked’ mandating that its actions are short and decisive. The US Army is the best ‘demolition team’ ever created and should ONLY be called from garrison when we need an enemy completely destroyed. Once out of its garrison box, it’s very challenging if not nearly impossible to get it back in. I think George Washington and other’s that lived under the Crown understood that and drove the wording of Article I. Other than Vietnam, please name one place the US Army was deployed that they withdrew back to US garrisons. I thought Somalia was the second example but recent news proved that wrong. So retired/former DOD officials and Army-centric gray-beard’s conclusions are NOT surprising. Senior officers and officials are sometimes ignorant of two disciplines; history and geography. That’s both evident and tragic! I wonder how many of the gray-beards in this study group have studied the history of British and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan…

  3. rgl

    February 23, 2021 at 10:21 am

    The Americans remain in Afghanistan because the Soviet Union failed, and America cannot be seen to have likewise, failed. Further, Afghanistan is a cash cow for America’s defense industry. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Lastly, the CIA requires a solid, continuing source of ‘black money’ to enable off-the-books spookery. Afghanistan opium supplies that cash.

    The US will not leave Afghanistan in my opinion. It is envisioned to become an American protectorate much like South Korea, which is still technically at war with the North, thanks to American efforts to keep it that way. American troops will be in Afghanistan for a good long while yet.

  4. Jack B Nimble

    February 25, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Your last line sums up the nub of the problem — “It is time for those who live in and around Afghanistan to take the final responsibility for ending this war.”

    There are many in and around Afghanistan who do NOT want to end the war. They will continue to use violence to jockey for power and dominance. The fatal flaw in all past US strategies has been a reliance on local power-brokers to abide by a peace settlement.

    Any successful US strategy must recapture US autonomy and not be reliant on the cooperation of locals. Since there are no compelling reasons for us to stay, we need to leave, sooner rather than later, and leave no stay-behind presence as hostages to local warlords. Whatever the locals choose to do after we leave is their concern not ours.

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