Tell Me How This Ends: The Afghanistan Edition


President Donald J. Trump has announced a new (sort of) course for America’s War in Afghanistan–the longest and most expensive war the country has ever fought. I say “new” because it is both a departure from the President’s previous campaign rhetoric and it is a new policy for the troubled young Trump Administration. However, it might be the wrong decision. Let’s run through some of the basics of the “plan,” shall we?

I. We Know How Repeats End…

The President’s plan for Afghanistan seems to be a hybrid one; a retread of the previous (mostly failed) plans for Afghanistan that spanned the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. It includes a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan ordering around 4,000 troops–which is both too much and not enough, in my view.

II. No Time Tables–Good for Waging Endless War…

Given the surge in question, the plan rightly disavows the need for public time table announcements and draw down deadlines. Instead, the pace and tempo of the American mission in Afghanistan will be dictated exclusively by “conditions on the ground” and the assessments of the battlefield commanders. On its face, this is a worthwhile change. Yet, in the former case, it is merely a return to the George W. Bush method of fighting in Afghanistan. As for the latter issue, granting battlefield commanders greater say in the conduct of the war is brilliant and vital. Although, it is less of a strategy for Afghanistan than it is simply a tactical decision.

We can sideline all of the talk about time tables and troop levels that we want; we can also applaud the greater level of autonomy that battlefield commanders are being given, however, this does not address the issue of why we’re fighting the way that we’re fighting in Afghanistan. 

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The United States talks a big game about its inability to win in Afghanistan because we’ve never had the requisite troop levels. Okay, what are the requisite troop levels? At one time or another over the last 17 years, the United States has upwards of 100,000 troops in the country. Yet, that was an insufficient number to bring a political settlement with the Taliban. When President Barack Obama came into office, in part because of his promises to wage the “right war” in Afghanistan, he insisted on a new strategy that involved a surge in Afghanistan (seeking to replicate the apparent success of the previous Bush Administration’s surge in Iraq without crediting former President Bush’s mostly successful effort in Iraq).

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Thus, Obama’s generals came up with a plan to surge upward of 60,000 troops into Afghanistan. The idea was to send those forces–along with a smattering of America’s mostly feckless NATO allies and hapless Afghan partners–into the al Qaeda and Taliban-controlled zones of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan. The force would be split in half; half of the proposed forces would deploy to one part of the country and the other half would simultaneously deploy to the other. The concept was a simple one: hit both parts of the country at once, then isolate and crush the insurgents living there. By attacking both sections of the country at once, the military brass believed they could quell the insurgency.

Yet, after a series of particularly contentious National Security Council meetings (as documented in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars,”), former President Obama began getting cold feet. He rightly assessed that there was a reason that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other inglorious notables kept enjoying a resurgence in the country. It was because these groups had very strong ties at an ethnographic, religious, geographic, and cultural level. These ties bound groups, such as the Taliban, to powerful local actors–across time. Therefore, Mr. Obama understood that virtually no amount of U.S. forces operating in the region could be used to permanently squelch the insurgency. Frankly, the insurgency simply enjoyed far too much popular support at the ground-level. Obama and his key advisers quickly concluded that any surge into the country would merely precipitate and exacerbate America’s woes in that country by committing us to an endless war.

The generals were ultimately given 40,000 less troops than they wanted and, unfortunately, had their hands tied with highly restrictive rules of engagement that turned an already nearly-impossible task into an insurmountable one. Of course, President Obama was learning quickly that Afghanistan, as the war had been configured by his predecessor, was an unwinnable disaster in which there were no good options. However, the absolute worst options–such as hedging his way between outright failure and total retreat–were definitely not the way to go. Obama’s choice of encourage his generals to take the fight to the enemy, but with far less troops than they thought they needed, coupled with the restrictive rules of engagement, meant that the war effort would neither fail nor succeed; it would simply stall. This was an immoral and idiotic choice on the part of Obama.

However, Obama correctly assessed that the solution in the country had to be a mostly political one. After all, as Clausewitz stated, politics is war through other means. All wars were ultimately political. Force in warfare was necessary to having a political effect. Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of troops (and nearly $1 trillion) committed to the endeavor, no real change had been made. In fact, I would argue that the decision in 2002 to not only help establish a quasi-democratic regime in Kabul following the Taliban’s ouster, but also to expand America’s role and presence in Afghanistan (in order to prop up that decrepit, kleptocratic government in Kabul) made the United States less secure and, likely, turned much of the locals’ tenuous opinion of Americans against us.

While it is safe to say that the Obama approach was just as bad as his predecessors’ approach (because he lacked the political courage of his stated conviction of ending unnecessary wars), the strategic assessment of America’s role in Afghanistan during the Obama years was not entirely wrong. We were waging an endless war that, under the current parameters was virtually unwinnable. The longer we remained in force in Afghanistan, the more likely that we alienated potential allies in the local populace. The harder we fought not to kill terrorists, but to prop up the flailing central government in Kabul certainly empowered the insurgents arrayed against us.

This current Trump Administration plan, at least as publicly presented, is a recipe for endless warfare. We’re set to spend $48 billion in Afghanistan this year with an additional $50 billion supposedly coming next year for the war effort there. What are we getting for this effort? Is not the point of war to eventually end?

We can prattle on endlessly about the appropriate tactical decisions being made by the President, but what about the strategic ones? How do we win this war? What does winning look like (other than “favorable conditions on the ground”)?

How does this end?

An Alternative Approach

Rather than sending additional troops to beef up America’s efforts to “stabilize” Afghanistan to create “workable” political conditions for the pre-failed government in Kabul, the United States should rapidly draw down the bulk of its regular armed forces operating in Afghanistan. Instead, the United States should deploy a large cluster of Special Forces and paramilitary forces into the country to conduct continuous intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism (CT) operations directed against jihadist elements. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump are all correct in their claims that we can never allow for al Qaeda (or any other jihadist terror network) to use Afghanistan as a base from whence to conduct international terror attacks directed against the United States (or Europe, for that matter) again. However, the requirements are not the same for waging a purely CT mission in Afghanistan as they are for managing the kind of counterinsurgency (COIN) mission that we’ve been doing in Afghanistan since 2002.

Afghanistan truly is the place where empires go to die. Alexander the Great broke himself there; Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty could not ultimately control the land; the British Empire exhausted itself in the mountains of Afghanistan three different times; the Soviet Union died there; the mostly Arab al Qaeda also could never really gain the kind of influence it dreamed of acquiring in Afghanistan, despite copious amounts of money thrown at the locals. Ultimately, as soon as the United States military and their Northern Alliance allies moved in during November of 2001, the bulk of the Afghan people quickly turned their back on the “foreign” al Qaeda fighters.

Meanwhile, the United States has tried two strategies in its War in Afghanistan. The first was the wildly successful “light footprint” strategy from 2001-02. During that opening phase of the war, the United States used a small handful of CIA paramilitary teams, Special Forces operators, embedded within larger indigenous groups (i.e. the Northern Alliance), and copious amounts of airpower to move rapidly and decisively on the enemy. This small but strong force broke al Qaeda apart and toppled the Taliban in mere months–killing and capturing scores of Bad Guys and sending the rest scurrying across the open border with neighboring Pakistan. We should have called it a “win” and gone home after Kabul fell, and both al Qaeda and the Taliban found refuge next door, licking their wounds. But, we decided to “own” Afghanistan and to prop up the backward post-Taliban government in Kabul. That was the nation-building side of the mission that involved years of counterinsurgency operations in the hinterland of Afghanistan, in which the United States government actually tried to unite a country like Afghanistan under centralized, basically foreign (and wildly unpopular) rule…in a land with little roads, virtually no infrastructure, and history of tribalism on a grand scale.

The Taliban, despite having a long history of positive interactions with al Qaeda, is not the same as al Qaeda or ISIS. They are all jihadist networks, but the Taliban has the deepest roots with the local Pashtun population (one of the largest, most storied, and most important tribes in Afghanistan). The Taliban is, in effect, a Pashtun liberation movement. While al Qaeda enjoys connections with the local tribes in Afghanistan (and in neighboring Pakistan), their ties are those of a foreigner. The Taliban is an indigenous group. What’s more, the Taliban has expressed interest–at varying times and to varying degrees–in sitting down and working out a negotiated settlement with the Americans over the War in Afghanistan. Oh, and there’s another thing: most counterinsurgencies, of the sort that the United States has been mired in, end in a negotiated settlement.

There is a deal to be had with the Taliban over Afghanistan. If the Taliban could be bought or bribed into a more compliant and conciliatory stance toward the American position, al Qaeda will have been dealt a severe blow. By maintaining a robust but small Special Forces and CIA paramilitary presence to conduct endless CT operations in Afghanistan, we would be securing our national interests whilst showing strength in the face of Taliban aggression: we would compel the Taliban to meet us at the negotiating table, since it would be far too costly for them to continue fighting us. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be going anywhere, and neither would they. We are stalemated. When stalemates occur, negotiations can happen. Besides, the Taliban is not stupid. At worst, the Taliban is governed by the concept of al Taqqiyah, which is the practice of lulling your usually stronger opponent into a false sense of safety, negotiating with him, and then using the protracted period of “peace” as a time to rebuild and rehabilitate your own forces. It is likely that the Taliban would view negotiations in such a light.

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Yet, there is one thing about al Taqqiyah: it requires the weaker side (in this case, the Taliban) to actually agree with the stronger force on the need for a more amicable settlement. It would buy us as much time as it would buy them. Plus, by forcing the Taliban to enmesh themselves in a coalition government in Kabul, the Taliban would be moderated–especially since American Special Forces and paramilitary intelligence teams would continue operating in the country. We could potentially replicate the peaceful solution between Muqtadr al-Sadr in Iraq and the U.S.-backed government of Iraq when Sadr became a member of the Iraqi government.

It’s not optimal, but as President Trump pointed out in his speech, there are no good options in Afghanistan. However, I believe that he has his arms wrapped squarely around the bad decision in Afghanistan.

Too Many Hands at the Wheel

For all of the controversy surrounding him, former Blackwater founder and CEO, Erik Prince, was correct to point out the several flaws of America’s current imbroglio in Afghanistan. Notably among them, Prince called out America for not having a truly unified combatant command handling all of the Afghan War policy. To remedy this, Prince suggested that President Trump appoint a special presidential envoy to behave as a sort of Old School colonial viceroy: directing all military, diplomatic, financial, and other policies for the War in Afghanistan. All roads in the War in Afghanistan leadership would begin and/or end with this supreme authority.

Right now, the United States mission in Afghanistan is similar to our mission in Vietnam. This, of course, is a losing proposition. The most troubling similarity is the fact that there are simply too many hands on the wheel. Of course, we have a lead military officer running the military mission in Afghanistan, but there are a set of competing organizations all vying to have their influence on the War in Afghanistan. These groups range from fellow governmental entities, such as USAID, to massive multinational entities, to multiple allied countries, such as those states that comprise NATO.

Whatever unity may exist on paper between and among these groups, the fact remains that there is little unity there. Sure, coordination occurs, but each group is competing with and seeking dominance over the other. This is especially true in the case of NATO, whose various member states place increasingly restrictive rules of engagement on their troops in Afghanistan to the point that they may as well not even be in Afghanistan. All of these differing bureaucracies and multinational groups, with their various rules and organizational gimmicks, are not facilitating America’s success in Afghanistan nor are they lending to the overall hope of victory.

Something needs to change.

Erik Prince suggested a highly privatized effort for the War in Afghanistan: he wanted the bulk of American and NATO troops to return to their homes and allow for Special Forces, intelligence operators, and his private military contractors to take up the task of training the Afghans to be able to resist the inevitable al Qaeda and Taliban onslaught without the bulk of American forces that currently operate in Afghanistan. Now, this plan certainly has its flaws. But, many of Prince’s critiques of the way the war is going and the way it is being waged are sound–particularly the notion that there are too many hands at the steering wheel, causing chaos and inefficiency.

Although, Please Stop Saying This Is Like Iraq…

Here’s another dangerous argument made by the Democratic Globalists (a.k.a. Neocons) who cannot seem to find a war they dislike: these folks continually argue that if we pull out of Afghanistan, the same fate that befell Iraq in 2014 will befall Afghanistan. There are some major differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. The first and foremost is geography. Not only was Iraq a more urbanized country in which counterinsurgency had a better chance of being successful in, but Afghanistan is an isolated, strategic backwater. The chance for regional destabilization emanating from Afghanistan is low compared to the ability of the geopolitically important Iraq.

Indeed, as we saw in Iraq, the weakened central government was left in the lurch when former President Obama precipitously drew down in Iraq. As the country limped on in the absence of American forces that were originally to remain in Iraq, neighboring Syria imploded, sending the chaos and violence into neighboring Iraq, thereby destabilizing it–and the entire region. The destabilization allowed for the expansion of Iran; it encouraged the growth of jihadist elements; and it created a unique opportunity for Russia to reassert itself in the Mideast in ways it had not since the Cold War. Plus, Iraq’s oil wealth and its position in the heart of the Mideast made it too important to simply ignore.

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This is not the case with Afghanistan. It is mountainous, it is rural, and it is in the heart of Eurasia. It is in Russia’s proverbial backyard, as well as Iran’s–and China has significant concerns in Afghanistan as well. Neighboring Pakistan is deeply wedded to the future of Afghanistan. In each case, the regional powers have extensive ties and influence with the Taliban. What’s more, these powers want America gone, as they view our military presence in Afghanistan as a threat as well as a destabilizing force. So, the United States should be playing on that by signaling to these states that we are more than happy to extricate ourselves, if the Taliban meets us halfway.

Also, I’m not advocating for the kind of precipitous draw down that Obama engaged in vís-a-vís Iraq. We want to keep CT forces in Afghanistan, but we don’t want to keep the heavy concentration of regular forces that we current have deployed in Afghanistan. Those forces are needed elsewhere or, better yet, can be used to contribute to the American economy in their civilian lives.

It Wasn’t All Bad, Of Course…

There were some good parts of the speech. I enjoyed the visceral experience of having my Commander-in-Chief finally talk about “victory” unapologetically. Although, again, most of what he said pertained to tactical issues rather than strategic ones. The one area where strategy became a factor was in the President’s decision to call out Pakistan for its continued support of both the Taliban and, to a lesser extent, al Qaeda. Of course, former President Barack Obama made a sport of belittling Pakistan and chiding them for these flagrant violations. Nothing was made better in Afghanistan because of it. Nothing.

Fact is, Pakistan is a basket case country that could tip over at any moment. What’s more, it is a basket case country heading in the wrong direction with an arsenal of nuclear warheads. Now, my understanding is that there exists contingency plans for neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, should the country lose its mind, and suffer a coup of some sort. However, these plans are wholly insufficient for handling the number of nuclear arms that Pakistan possesses. The plans are also highly speculative and would likely be overcome by events, in the case of a massive popular unrest that unseated the current Pakistani government and replaced it with Lord knows what.

Keep in mind that the upper echelons of the precarious Pakistani government are generally oriented toward the West and friendly to the United States. Yet, in many cases, the mid-level Pakistani government officials (those who comprise organizations like the Inter-Service Intelligence group, Pakistan’s top intelligence-gathering agency) are both Islamists and want to support the Taliban and al Qaeda, as a means of ensuring that Afghanistan remains as a strategic asset for Pakistan in their ongoing blood feud with neighboring India. Then, of course, there is the populace in Pakistan which is overwhelmingly anti-American. Most people in Pakistan are educated exclusively in the radical Madrassas and they are disinclined to share any sympathetic feelings or views of America.

So, when President Trump talks tough on Pakistan, I begin to worry: does he mean we will expand our military operations into neighboring Pakistan (much of both the Taliban and al Qaeda operate just across the Pakistani border in the Federally Administered Tribal Area)? Because, if Trump does want to expand our operations kinetically into Pakistan, we truly run the risk of popular backlash that either elevates the Islamists in ISI into power or elevates a jihadist from within the population in Pakistan–either of which would have access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Also, let us not forget the possibility that Trump was speaking in terms of diplomacy. This is something that I’ve long argued in favor of: using India as a strategic lever to get Pakistan to do our bidding. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere, this is not a fait accompli. Embracing India will take years; the Pakistanis will not be fazed if it is sudden and too much, because they’ll naturally assume that this is a temporary alliance that Pakistan can wait out. After all, we need Pakistan in the Global War on Terror–their intelligence services and CT forces have proven instrumental at critical junctures over the years. And, if we pull India too close, Pakistan is just as likely to run into the waiting arms of the People’s Republic of China, as they are to simply abandon their geopolitical designs for Afghanistan. Given China’s current level of antipathy toward both India and to the United States, it’s likely that any attempt to gravitate toward India as a means of signaling to Pakistan that they need to play ball (and help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table) would merely create a larger, anti-American Sino-Pakistani alliance that would wish to preserve the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan (whilst weakening America’s position over the long-term there).

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Still, though, given the presence of Russia, Iran, and China–and the fact that all three powers benefit from an American withdrawal in Afghanistan–it is likely that using India to pressure Pakistan diplomatically to pressure their Taliban clients to make a deal with the United States remains the best option for America.

However, this is not an actual strategy overall. It is a diplomatic strategy that is (or, should be) a part of a larger strategy for the United States in Afghanistan overall. Now, the President seemed to imply in his statements that we’d need to ultimately resolve the War in Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This is the right conclusion on his part. Yet, I worry that the President’s decision to expand–however limited–America’s presence in the country is missing the point. Sure, it will make everyone feel better and we’ll likely start seeing some turnarounds at the tactical level. However, just as with previous surges, any increase in U.S. troops will not only sour the local population to America’s continued mission in the country, but it will also be unlikely to actually bring the Taliban to the table–especially if more and more Afghans are losing faith and trust in the American forces operating there.

Besides, the number of troops is irrelevant. What matters is the way in which we fight. When we invaded Afghanistan with a small, highly potent force of Special Forces operators, CIA paramilitary officers, and loads of airpower, we won. When we switched to a more conventional approach, we lost the country after we won the war. We should look to our own recent history and seek to replicate the strategy that gave us the greatest amounts of success from 2001-02, rather than those unwieldy policies that led us astray from 2002-17.

This Doesn’t End

In its present form, the Trump policy for Afghanistan is a rehash of what has come before. Oh, sure, President Trump disavows the need for time tables (of course, you can rest assured that behind closed doors there is a time table). He’s made the argument for a greater degree of pressure being placed upon Pakistan who, hopefully in turn, will force the Taliban to the negotiating table. It also rightly acknowledges the need for a more peaceful diplomatic solution to the fighting than just the whack-a-mole/hand-out-candy approach that we’ve engaged in thus far. But, under the current parameters, it would appear as though we’re still trying to do too much.

If we want a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, then we should do that. There is no need to maintain a large force of conventional troops in Afghanistan. We should certainly maintain a counterterrorism element and an intelligence-gathering ability in Afghanistan. But, this can–and should–be done at minimal cost and risk. A surge of 4,000 or 40,000 troops will do little to change the conditions in Afghanistan; it will merely risk more lives, waste more money and time. The generals will argue that we’re engaged in a war that must be won. I argue that this sort of war cannot be won as the generals want it to be.

What we’re doing right now is a recipe for endless war. If a political solution to the conflict with the Taliban is the desired end goal, why waste time on this song-and-dance with increasing troops and giving it two years? The government in Kabul is not respected and cannot exert its force beyond a few pockets in Afghanistan. Most Afghans want to be left alone. Many more Afghans are at least sympathetic to the Taliban–and are made increasingly supportive as continual U.S. drone strikes create collateral damage throughout the countryside and America appears to be forcing that unpopular central government on the populace.

Let us hope that I’m wrong. Yet, over 2,000 years of recorded history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan is, unfortunately, buttressing my skeptical position on the ongoing U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. For the sake of the men and women that will be deployed; for the sake of the country; for the sake of the President, I hope that I’m proven wrong. Though, we should all remain skeptical and continue holding our elected leaders’ feet to the fire. After all, it’s usually not their friends and family being deployed to fight and possibly die in these endless, unwinnable wars.

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