The current strategy of defeating the Taliban militarily is unrealistic. The coalition is on the defensive across much of Afghanistan and, with current troop levels, can at most only contain the insurgency. On present course, the coalition is swiftly heading toward an impasse.

Just to retain the areas currently controlled by the coalition would require significant additional troops next year. Many more than that would be required for the coalition, with heavy losses, to adopt an offensive stance and win back territory. Such an escalation, though, is politically untenable given the impending departure of European forces and dwindling public support for the war. A new strategy is required.

Rather than committing more troops, the United States should instead pursue a political solution to the conflict, including a cease-fire and negotiations with the insurgents. By insisting on power-sharing among the various Afghan factions and reserving the right to intervene militarily to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for extremist groups, the United States can still accomplish the more limited objective of preventing the return of al-Qaeda.

However, the United States must act quickly. Given the rapidly deteriorating security situation, every passing month strengthens the position of the Taliban. A viable exit strategy is still possible, but time is not on America’s side.

President Obama and U.S. military leaders must keep five important truths in mind as they review the Afghanistan war strategy:

  • Optimistic assessments. The U.S. command sees the situation in Afghanistan in overly positive terms and this jeopardizes its credibility with decision makers and public opinion.
  • Unrealistic objectives. American commanders cannot defeat the Taliban militarily and can at best contain the insurgency in most provinces.
  • Irreversible advances. As the Taliban strengthens and the Afghan government weakens, turning over security to the Afghan army is impossible in the near term.
  • Escalating troop numbers. The current military option will only lead to an increase in U.S. troops to counter the insurgency’s rise and the withdrawal of European forces.   
  • Take the initiative. The Obama administration must push for negotiations with the insurgency and a cease-fire rather than be boxed into dead-end military logic.