The “Small/Light” Footprint Lie You May Hear (Again)

Then-President George W. Bush participates in a video teleconference with Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Team Leaders and Brigade Combat Commanders at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 13, 2008. Jim Watson/Getty Images

Academics, pundits, and scholars arguing that a “light” or “small” footprint of U.S. soldiers remaining in Afghanistan could have saved the day will gloss over the fact that those were the strategies we used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan already.

Instead of achieving their dream objectives with just a few troops, it leads to gradual escalation, prolonged conflict, and a repeat of what we saw for the last 20 years.

In Vietnam, we originally sent “advisors” (special forces) to assist the South Vietnamese Army in building up its forces to defend itself. Unfortunately, because of the level of corruption and ineffectiveness of the SVA, we sent US Marines to secure airfields from Vietcong attacks. Soon, more soldiers and Marines were deployed to conduct patrols and search and destroy missions. The planes flying out of South Vietnam were used to attempt to bomb North Vietnam to the negotiating table. Another similar strategy people argued would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. It did not work.

In Iraq, we went in with a limited force. That “light footprint” was extremely effective at destroying Saddam’s Republican Guard and turning over security to secure areas. However, Iraq soon devolved into an insurgency. We ended up deploying a “surge” of troops to Iraq to quell the unrest in combination with the Sunni Awakening. Local Iraqis were the ones to bring the violence to an end. We eventually redeployed soldiers to assist in fighting back ISIS.

In Afghanistan, we began with sending in special forces to aid the Northern Alliance in routing the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Kabul was rid of the Taliban and we ended up settling on a “light footprint” strategy to avoid appearing as foreign invaders. Later, we would send in “surges” of troops to combat the Taliban after they returned in 2006. We were unable to train and equip the Afghan Army into an effective fighting force to secure Afghanistan on its own.

The Reality

Those arguing for a “small” footprint of soldiers (usually 2,000–5,000) live in a fantasy that that is all you need to secure Afghanistan, support the Afghan National Army, and defeat the Taliban. In actuality, more U.S. troops would be vulnerable to danger, we would be forced to expand our presence to protect more land and area, and we would repeat what we did for the last 20 years.

They live in a fantasy that U.S. soldiers can deploy to a foreign conflict, avoid all danger and harm, avoid civilian casualties, and defeat a guerilla insurgency with just a few thousand troops. What they really want is to keep U.S. soldier casualties out of the media and at a minimum to mislead the public on war efforts as previous administrations have.

What we saw was the fall of Kabul. The Taliban already controlled most of Afghanistan with half the population under Taliban rule in 2017. The scenes of chaos and panic at the airport are what shocked us. It was not until you were forced to watch it on TV that you finally saw the harsh reality.

Afghanistan was lost. And there is never a clean way to lose a war.

U.S. Army Veteran. M.A. International Relations from University of Chicago. Voter. Volunteer. I write to inform my friends as best I can.