A Blank Check for Afghanistan


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The trouble with the new (or, rather, not-so-new) Trump Administration war plan for Afghanistan is that it’s a loser. Sure, the president gets high marks for finally talking about “victory” in Afghanistan—after 17 years of seemingly endless warfare, it’s nice to hear the word mentioned. Yet, for all of the talk of victory, the president offered nothing new, at least strategically, that would achieve that goal.

Angelo Codevilla has also argued that we got nothing new from Trump on Afghanistan. At a tactical level, the president made much sense: we would no longer have the onerous rules of engagement that have prevented our gallant troops from fully bringing the hurt to our enemies. Battlefield commanders, not politicians in Washington, would have near-complete autonomy over the day-to-day course of the war. This is a refreshing change from the previous administration, which squandered Americans’ time, money, and lives in Afghanistan fighting simply to hold on, rather than win or withdraw. The restraining tactics of the Obama years were perfectly suited to a strategy of stalemate.

But do improved and sensible tactics automatically suggest a more sensible strategy? What is our strategy?

The best President Trump gave us was that “conditions on the ground,” rather than arbitrary time tables, would dictate the course of the war. Although sound policy, that remains a tactical rather than strategic consideration. And, really, this rhetoric sounds eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush and his “low energy” brother, Jeb!

To be clear, I am not an outright opponent of the plan, but I am a skeptic. For instance, supporters of the president’s plan argue that this rehash of the old plan is exactly what the president promised during the campaign. “Right now,” F. H. Buckley argues, “the principal breeding ground of Islamic jihadism is Afghanistan, not Syria, and Trump correctly concluded that the very best way to prevent another 9/11 is to continue the fight in that country. It’s just what he promised on the campaign trail.”

Respectfully, no, it is not.

First, people like myself supported what was once referred to as the “Counterterrorism-Plus” strategy advanced by that broken clock and former Vice President Joe Biden. This plan called for focusing on the counterterrorism, rather than on the counterinsurgency aspects of the war. Right now, President Trump’s plan sounds dreadfully similar to our current counterinsurgency effort—sending more forces (around 4,000 troops) to win the fickle hearts and minds of the Afghan people, thereby denying insurgents, such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda, recruits. This plan has never worked in Afghanistan. So, whether it’s 4,000 or 40,000 more troops, it’s still a bad plan. Some hearts can’t be won.

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Second, although it’s true Afghanistan is a front in the “Global War on Terror,” the geography, political system, and historical realities of the country make a massive invasion with conventional forces primed for “bolstering” the unpopular local government a waste of time. As Peter Tomsen has shown, the true path to political stability in Afghanistan lies not in Kabul, but with the local tribes—and they generally want foreigners to leave them alone. The larger our presence is, the more the locals will turn against us. It’s just that simple.

The military keeps arguing that larger troop numbers will “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghans. Yet, when America had nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, it did little to persuade the bulk of the population to support our cause. What makes the president think that 15,000 troops total would make a difference now?

Fact is, the real fight is not Afghanistan, which remains only partially controlled by the Islamist Taliban (and where both the foreign al-Qaeda and ISIS elements are not as popular as their propaganda would have you believe), but in the Levant. What’s more, the war is actually shifting away from the Mideast, and toward Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. What are we doing to counter the rise of jihadists in Asia? We’re sending special forces, which is the proper way to fight terrorism.

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Third, there is no upper limit to the troop surge. This is potentially Vietnam redux. In Vietnam, America’s leaders didn’t fight to win. They fought merely to preserve the government of South Vietnam. That was not a sound strategy. The United States spent a decade, and deployed hundreds of thousands of its brave young men—while dropping more ordnance on Vietnam than we dropped on Europe during World War II—to no effect. The Communists still enjoyed a political victory. Under current plans for Afghanistan, we’ll likely keep sending more troops, and the insurgents will keep resisting. Just like Vietnam. Get the picture?

Fourth, the president has laughably demanded that NATO forces “step up to the plate” in Afghanistan. Sure, after 17 years of not stepping up to the plate (in some cases, not even taking the field), presidential shaming will draw the hapless Germans and the recalcitrant French into the fight. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump rightly pointed out the systemic flaws of NATO. Now, he seems to have thrown those views out with his erstwhile strategic adviser, Steve Bannon.

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