The United States, facing deepening economic and fiscal woes at home, is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. More and more policymakers, congressional representatives, and members of the public are calling for the majority of U.S. forces to pull out as quickly as possible and for Washington to shift from an expensive counterinsurgency strategy, in which tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops protect the Afghan population, to a cheaper counterterrorism strategy, in which special operations forces strike at terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Afghans are left largely on their own.

The counterinsurgency strategy began in earnest in 2009, when the United States raised its total number of troops in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000. This Afghan surge led to tactical success: Kandahar and Helmand were largely secured, and the number of Afghan police and army soldiers nearly doubled. But it was expensive. In 2011, the U.S. Congress authorized nearly $114 billion for the effort, roughly a fourth of the entire cost of the Afghan war since 2001. Given the current economic climate, such high annual outlays are no longer sustainable. Last June, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that 33,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2012 and that Afghan forces will take the lead in the country's security by the end of 2014. Although it remains undecided exactly how fast the withdrawal will proceed after 2012 and what sort of U.S. presence will remain after 2014, Washington is facing strong domestic pressure to bring its troops home and to focus on rebuilding the economy.

At first glance, shifting to counterterrorism would seem the best way to meet this goal. A counterterrorism approach would cut costs by pulling out most U.S. ground troops. Special operations forces would remain in the larger bases, with responsibility for launching missions to kill or capture al Qaeda members, high-level Taliban figures, and leaders of the Haqqani network. What is more, the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May seemed to give this approach credibility by suggesting that knocking out al Qaeda -- the primary reason why the United States entered Afghanistan in the first place -- does not require tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

The problem with such thinking, however, is that it ignores the question of what will happen in the country after the Americans leave. More specifically, it largely overlooks the ongoing and vital role the United States is playing in advising, training, and supporting the Afghan government and its security forces.

A few counterterrorism advocates, particularly Vice President Joseph Biden, have called for the United States to keep military advisers (or what they refer to as "trainers," a term that denotes a noncombat role) in Afghanistan after 2014, but such proposals are not detailed or instructive enough. There is no discussion of how many U.S. forces would fill this role, where they would be located, how long they would stay, or whether they would go into battle with their Afghan counterparts. Amid the drawdown, U.S. military commanders, running short on conventional forces and lacking orders to the contrary, would likely relegate U.S. advisory units to big bases or dissolve them altogether. Similarly, in the face of a military withdrawal, the U.S. civilian officials who work with their Afghan counterparts in the countryside would likely pull back to the embassy in Kabul and a handful of consulates. Thus, the soldiers and civilians most needed to hold Afghanistan together would end up too far away from the areas that matter -- the provinces and districts -- to make a difference.

Such a counterterrorism strategy would be unlikely to hold Afghanistan together. Once U.S. forces pulled out, Taliban fighters based in Pakistan would escalate their attacks against key Afghan provinces. At the same time, they would work to gain popular support by exploiting the tendency of the Afghan government and its domestic allies to mistreat the population and to squabble with one another, a process that would only be magnified once U.S. civilian advisers were gone. Although they have increased in number and ability in recent years, the Afghan army, police, and tribal militias would not be able to fend off the Taliban without the help of U.S. forces. (They lack the capability to call in air strikes, for example, and suffer from logistical shortcomings.)

The Afghan central government would likely lose control of the Pashtun east and south, the very ground the U.S. military and its allies have fought so hard to secure. Kabul would become the frontline, turned to rubble once more. Counterterrorism would also get much more difficult: intelligence would dry up as the Taliban scared Afghans away from working with the government, forward bases would have to be abandoned as they were encircled by insurgents, and Pakistan's tribal region would become more remote and harder to hit. The Afghan government, thrown on the defensive, would be unable to prevent the return of al Qaeda to the vast Pashtun heartland. In other words, although a full counterinsurgency strategy may no longer be sustainable, a pure counterterrorism strategy is scarcely more attractive, as it could cause Afghanistan to backslide, quickly and perhaps irrevocably, taking with it the United States' ability to combat al Qaeda.

From Washington's perspective, giving up on eastern and southern Afghanistan and accepting a heightened terrorist threat might be acceptable if, in fact, there were no way to recoup a decade's effort in Afghanistan at a manageable cost. But this is not the case. Salvaging the war will not require 100,000 troops. A gradual but steady withdrawal that leaves thousands of U.S. military and civilian advisers in the country after 2014, as well as special operations forces and airpower, is a viable alternative.

In relying more on small, elite advisory teams, living out in the field and working side by side with their Afghan counterparts, the United States could enable the Afghan government to fend off the Taliban at an affordable cost. This strategy differs dramatically from counterterrorism because it prioritizes holding Afghanistan together (many counterterrorism advocates, such as the U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill, readily concede that a divided, Pashtun-less Afghanistan may be the outcome). Not only can an advisory strategy bring about a stable, secure Afghanistan, but it also offers the United States a strategic model for its new age of austerity. Future challenges can be met, and even prevented, at a low cost by the aggressive use of military and civilian advisers.


The United States can draw on a long and successful history of deploying advisers to fight insurgencies abroad, beginning in 1950, when U.S. Air Force officer Edward Lansdale and a few dozen military advisers helped Filipino President Ramón Magsaysay defeat the communist Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines. A more recent and well-known success story is El Salvador, where between 1981 and 1989, a handful of U.S. military and civilian advisers backed by roughly $8.7 billion in aid (adjusted for inflation) enabled the government to hold off 10,000 guerrillas. The military advisers oversaw the growth of the El Salvadoran army from 11,500 to 57,000 soldiers, and the civilian advisers targeted the root causes of the insurgency by enacting a wide-ranging campaign to strengthen democracy. The effort kept the insurgency in check until 1992, when the loss of Soviet and Cuban aid forced the exhausted insurgents to sign a peace accord. A similar process has played out in Colombia. Since 2000, fewer than 1,500 U.S. military and civilian advisers, together with over $7 billion in largely military aid, have helped the Colombian government push back the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and reduce terrorist attacks in the country by 90 percent. Finally, in Afghanistan itself in 2001, fewer than 10,000 U.S. special operations forces, marines, and soldiers embedded with the Northern Alliance and President Hamid Karzai's Pashtun allies drove out the Taliban -- good proof of what can be accomplished by a few bold men.

In all these cases, advisers focused on supporting a preexisting government (or local alliance, in the case of Afghanistan) rather than on carrying out independent combat or counterterrorist operations of their own. The host government and its armed forces functioned, even if they were often ridden with problems. (For this reason, Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2006 stand out as examples where an advisory strategy may not have been feasible, given that the host militaries were being overrun.) In no cases above did an opponent have a marked numerical or material advantage, such as in aircraft, artillery, or armor. In short, as long as the security forces of the host country have the motivation and basic combat skills to stand up and fight and are not facing overwhelming odds, then small teams of foreign military and civilian advisers can provide the tactical edge and political cohesion necessary to fend off opponents, if not defeat them altogether.

In Afghanistan, advisers may not be able to fully clear mountainous areas where the Taliban are strong, such as Kunar and Nuristan, but they could prevent most of Afghanistan, including its Pashtun heartland, from being overrun by the Taliban. This would require a serious commitment from the United States. Foreign advisers would need to remain in the country well beyond 2014, until one of two things happened: either the Afghan government reached a formal or informal truce with the Taliban or Afghans on their own were able to make a Taliban presence in populated areas untenable.


Thousands of U.S. military and civilian advisers are currently based in Afghanistan. Teams of military advisers, ranging in size from 12 to 28 soldiers or marines, are embedded with the Afghan Ministries of Defense and the Interior in Kabul all the way down to the army battalions and the district police forces on the frontlines, often living, working, and fighting beside their Afghan counterparts.

Outside the isolated mountain valleys of Kunar and Nuristan, where the local terrain has allowed the Taliban to win a string of victories, the Afghan army and police generally get the better of insurgents in daily operations. Afghan forces performed well last summer in firefights in Kabul, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah. Yet they still depend on U.S. fire, air, and logistical support -- and on their advisers to coordinate such support. A report last October by the U.S. Department of Defense showed that 114 of 161 Afghan army battalions and 150 of 218 Afghan police district forces could plan, execute, and sustain operations, but all still needed assistance or advisers from U.S. and NATO commands. According to the report, no Afghan police forces and only one Afghan army battalion was effective without foreign support. The critical shortcoming of the Afghan forces is in air and artillery power, without which no army, U.S. or Afghan, can easily overcome insurgents who are entrenched in mud-walled villages. The Afghans rely on their U.S. and NATO advisers to call in artillery and air strikes. This is a technical issue not easily remedied: requesting such strikes requires specialized training and encrypted equipment, which means that U.S. and NATO aircraft would be of little use to Afghan soldiers and police if they had no advisers with them.

Afghan units also suffer from delays in receiving reinforcements and ammunition, a problem that, if left unchecked, can make an otherwise motivated unit ineffective in combat. By monitoring the readiness of their Afghan counterparts and keeping an eye on levels of ammunition and fuel, advisers can help ensure that supplies and reinforcements arrive on time from Afghan stockpiles and depots.

Even military analysts who are skeptical of full-scale counterinsurgency agree on the usefulness of advisers. For example, Bing West, a military analyst and author who has been critical of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, argues in his book The Wrong War that "the primary U.S. mission" in Afghanistan should be to transition to scores of small "adviser task forces." As West writes, "These advisers would go into combat with the Afghan forces, provide the link to fire support, and have a voice in who gets promoted." Military advisers fill a larger moral role, as well. By teaching, watching, and living with their Afghan counterparts, advisers impart values that will help build an Afghan army and an Afghan police force that can not only defeat the Taliban but also serve the Afghan people long after.


In addition to their military counterparts, civilian advisers -- political officers from the U.S. State Department, development and governance experts from USAID, specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and many others -- have been working in Afghanistan since 2001. These civilians are often part of the provincial reconstruction teams that are run by the United States or another NATO member in nearly every Afghan province; on the more local levels, 38 Afghan districts have analogous district support teams. Civilians provide guidance to provincial and district governors and work to improve governance, reduce corruption, and drive economic development. Based on their established relationships with local elders and government officials, civilian advisers also act as a key liaison with Afghan leaders when military forces damage property, disturb women in a raid, or cause inadvertent civilian casualties.

To be sure, civilian advisers face a complicated task: Afghanistan's political and social problems are vast. Government is overly centralized, denying locals a say in their own administration, and corruption is rife. On the district and provincial levels, governors, the police, and other leaders have a history of stealing land, levying illegal taxes, appropriating foreign aid, falsely imprisoning innocent people, and even torturing prisoners -- the sort of behavior that caused people in Kandahar to turn to the Taliban in the first place. A bigger problem is that the central government and its allies -- various tribes, mujahideen warlords, and former communists -- are not terribly united. For centuries, Afghan governments have had to balance the country's many tribes and ethnicities, using promises of money or political positions and threats of military force to keep them in line. Such a system has proved unstable and allows the Taliban to co-opt groups aligned with the government, as they did when they first seized power in 1994 and again when they took over parts of southern Afghanistan in 2006. Under the weight of these problems, it is hard to see how the Afghan government could hold together against the Taliban on its own.

Although there is no sure solution to these problems, civilian advisers can go a long way toward mending them. In some cases, civilians have been able to improve governance by reducing the degree of centralization in the Afghan state. In Helmand, for example, British development experts pioneered district community councils, whose members were elected by tribal leaders, religious leaders, doctors, and teachers; these councils are now up and running throughout the province and give locals a say in district government. Similarly, U.S. civilian advisers have been able to reduce corruption and abusive behavior, such as in Kunar, where they built a court system that is now overseeing public trials, exactly the kind of fair and open process that experts have long called for in Afghanistan.

Finally, civilian advisers have fostered unity among Afghanistan's disparate factions. In Khost, for example, U.S. civilians worked with the provincial government to reach out to the religious community in an effort to officially register more madrasahs; in the process, local Afghan officials engaged dozens of Taliban foot soldiers, who were then reintegrated into Afghan society. And in Helmand, civilians working in district support teams helped bring tribal leaders back to the pro-government camp. In 2010, they coordinated negotiations between the Afghan government and the Alikozai tribe in the hotly contested town of Sangin that resulted in key tribal leaders' pledging to oppose the Taliban. According to Shah Jahan, one of southern Helmand's more powerful tribal leaders, the civilian advisers "hold things together and keep the district governor, police chief, and tribal leaders from fighting with each other." The advisers bring with them mediation and alliance-building skills, which will be needed in Afghanistan for years to come. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on this point when she wrote in these pages in 2010, "Properly trained and equipped, civilians are force multipliers. One effective diplomat or development expert can leverage as many as ten local partners, and when local partners build their own capacities and networks, communities become stronger and more resilient."

Both military and political advisers serve one other purpose: they signal commitment. Their presence would reassure Afghans that international forces will not surrender their country to the Taliban, a fear that the Taliban have exploited. For example, Mullah Naim Barech, the Taliban's shadow governor of Helmand, sent messages to tribal leaders in 2010 and 2011 that the United States would be leaving by 2014 and that the Taliban would soon be back. As a result, a number of tribal leaders started hedging their bets, not wanting to be seen as allies of the government. Advisers countered these messages, explaining that U.S. policy was to let Afghans take the lead in security in 2014 but not to abandon the country entirely, reassuring most of the tribal leaders. In this way, as U.S. forces leave the country, advisers could act as a symbol of the United States' continuing commitment to Afghanistan and show Afghans that their support of the government would not be in vain. The presence of military and civilian advisers would also signal to NATO allies and Pakistan, as well as to regional rivals such as China and Iran, that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will endure, albeit in a modified and reduced form.


A policy based on maintaining advisers in strategically important locations need not drain U.S. blood and treasure. At the moment, there are between 8,000 and 12,500 military advisers who work with a total of 170,000 Afghan soldiers and 136,000 Afghan police officers. By the end of 2012, the U.S.-led coalition plans to have 195,000 Afghan soldiers and 157,000 Afghan police officers in the field; that means that to maintain the existing ratio of advisers to Afghans, the U.S.-led coalition would need to keep a total of approximately 9,000-14,500 advisers in Afghanistan, a rather hefty number. Yet if the United States and its allies focused on key districts in the east and the south, the number of advisers could be kept below 7,000, not including logistics and support personnel.

Meanwhile, roughly 1,300 U.S. civilians are now deployed in Afghanistan, marking the height of what Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan before he died in late 2010, called the "civilian surge." More would not be needed. In fact, the overall number of civilian advisers could be reduced as long as a core team of State Department and USAID officers remained with frontline provincial reconstruction teams and district support teams. They should serve two-year tours and be given adequate language training and a small amount of funding to run low-cost governance programs, not expensive infrastructure projects. To save costs, these civilians could move into the same locations as the military advisory teams.

What is critical is that both military and civilian advisers are deployed in the field, working with their Afghan counterparts. To do their job, military advisers need to live with the Afghans, so that they are close by when fighting breaks out. As the United States learned in Iraq, rushing to the scene of a battle from a giant forward operating base does not work. Time after time, Iraqi police and army units under attack were left on their own, unable to call in air support, waiting for U.S. military reinforcements. Most firefights last less than 30 minutes, and it is tough to get out of the front gate, let alone to the action, in that much time. Nor will civilian advisers have much success if they are cloistered in the U.S. embassy in Kabul and in a few consulates. Similar attempts at long-distance advising failed to get a grip on the poor governance and crippling feuds that nearly brought down the Afghan government in 2006. If posted far away from local government leaders and power brokers, civilian advisers will lose track of the intricacies of Afghan politics and will become too uninvolved in day-to-day events to react to problems. They need not live side by side with their Afghan counterparts -- such a constant presence would cast a shadow over Afghan sovereignty -- but they should see them daily, which means living out in the country's provinces and districts.

Advisory strategies that look cheap in theory can end up being quite expensive because of the security (what the military calls "force protection"), medical, and logistical costs of keeping small teams in the field. The size and cost of an operation can quickly balloon when factors such as U.S. soldiers to guard bases, dining facilities, and administrative staff are included. For the advisory approach to work in Afghanistan, the United States would have to forego these elaborate comforts. The teams would be expected to live without the giant bases and quick-reaction forces that now epitomize the Western way of war. Although they might have some vehicles and small security details, they would move and operate with the Afghans, and share the same risks. Through such measures, the number of support personnel could be held to well under current levels, as they were in previous wars. Special operations forces and airpower would stay in place to carry out counterterrorist missions and back up Afghan forces when needed.

The advantage of such a strategy is that it would be far less costly than full-blown counterinsurgency and is in keeping with the U.S. public's aversion to financing an overexpanded empire. The total number of U.S. troops and civilians in Afghanistan, including special operations forces and air and support personnel, could be brought down to 25,000, if not fewer, after 2014; based on research by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, this would cost only $30 billion per year, almost a quarter of current operational expenses. If U.S. allies also contributed to the advisory effort, the cost could be brought down even further.

The strategy does carry risks: advisers would inevitably be killed operating far from U.S. bases, away from quick-reaction forces and ready medical care. But their loss, however tragic, would be bearable if the overall effort enabled the Afghans to hold their country together at a lower economic and human cost than keeping tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in the country. The only other alternative would be to abandon Afghanistan, which would mean that the United States sacrificed ten years, thousands of lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars for nothing. A little more patience and effort will go a long way toward preserving hard-won gains.

Moreover, such a strategy would have obvious applications for the future. The United States is facing a new strategic paradigm. Since Vietnam, the country's wealth has allowed it to prosecute a form of war that minimized risk to its men and women. But that wealth is running dry. If the United States wants to retain its international dominance, it will have to tolerate more risks and the sacrifices that go along with them. Leaving small numbers of advisers in places such as Afghanistan is one way to maintain influence and accept risk. Military and political advisers cannot solve every problem -- sometimes large-scale interventions are necessary -- but there are many crises in which a few experienced soldiers and diplomats can prevent a problem from getting much worse.


This article has been revised to address an error in the original version, which incorrectly stated that Edward Lansdale was a colonel in the U.S. Army in 1950. By then, he was an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • CARTER MALKASIAN is Director of the Center for Stability and Development at CNA. He is a former Political Officer for the U.S. State Department in Garmser, Afghanistan. J. KAEL WESTON is a former Political Officer with the State Department who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2010.
  • More By Carter Malkasian
  • More By J. Kael Weston