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Trump’s Afghanistan Policy: More of the Same

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President Trump finally gave the American people his long promised strategy for Afghanistan in an address to a predominantly military audience in Fort Myer, Virginia. The 16-year conflict, America’s longest war, was a major focus of his criticism during the campaign. As a candidate, Mr. Trump strongly criticized the strategy and goals of his predecessor, President Obama, calling for the US to fully and immediately withdraw from Afghanistan. Since entering the Oval Office, President Trump has been silent on the subject, giving his civilian and military advisors time to come up with options for his Administration. Last night was the disappointing result of this effort.

No Afghanistan policy was ever going to be perfect. When President Bush decided to send in ground troops in late 2001, he was warned by Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov to “get out quickly”: but that sound advice based on experience was ignored. The final opportunity for a “good outcome” in Afghanistan was squandered in late 2002, after President Bush’s speech at the Virginia Military Institute calling for a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the President’s growing fixation with Iraq and the opposition of key officials like Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks to a US presence outside of Kabul deprived the countryside of a security presence[1]. Without a strong security presence, none of the promised aid reached the provincial cities or rural areas: this economic and military vacuum allowed the Taliban recovered and quickly recover territory they had abandoned in 2001/2002. At this point, the war became unwinnable.

This is the backdrop facing the Trump Administration’s strategic options: all bad. The “new” direction being proposed by the President is not really terrible – the main deficiency is that is isn’t really different either. The big changes are mostly semantic: a renewed aversion to “nation-building” or “afghanization” and a return to a focus on “security operations” and “hunting terrorists”. But the reality of US operations on the ground will not change radically compared to those carried out under President Obama’s surge. Some other aspects suggest a disturbing dissonance between what looks possible from Washington and the reality as viewed from Kabul or Islamabad. Given that this new direction has been heavily influenced by Secretary Mattis and NSA chief McMaster – two Marines who made their bones in Afghanistan and Iraq – it seems to ignore some important fundamentals that we have learned since our intervention began.

Parsing the President’s Speech

  • Introductory remarks: Call it a pet peeve, but I dislike the fulminous praise of military sacrifice and virtue from a five-time draft dodger and who lambasted Vietnam veteran John McCain for being captured. Bone spurs in your heel do not qualify you to speak about sacrifice or duty.
  • Introductory remarks 2: Clearly, the military got its message across to Mr. Trump regarding the ambivalence of his message denouncing racism, bigotry and hate after Charlottesville. At least he stuck to the script, which is better than he did on previous occasions, though it seems doubtful that he has changed his opinion one iota from his unscripted comments.

Now we get to the heart of the President’s exposition. He lists three conclusions he arrived at from the discussions of the strategic review:

  1. “Our nation must seek and honorable and enduring outcome.”
  2. “The consequences of a rapid exit are predictable and unacceptable….A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda….”
  3. “The security threats we face in Afghanistan, and the broader region, are immense. Today 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

As a result of this comprehensive review and based on the three conclusions, the President proposed the following pillars for a new strategy going forward:

  1. Shift from time-based strategy to one based on conditions on the ground;
  2. Integrating all aspects of US power – diplomatic, economic and military – toward a successful outcome;
  3. Change our approach to Pakistan;
  4. Further develop our strategic partnership with India, especially with regards to economic assistance and development in Afghanistan;
  5. Expanding authority of local commanders to plan and execute military strikes;
  6. Additional NATO support “in line” with US commitment;
  7. Burden-sharing with Afghanistan – no blank check. We will only work with them as long as there is progress.

Positive Aspects

The Administration’s new strategic direction as some positive aspects. Expanding the authority of local commanders makes sense; it is a basic military principle that any situation evolves faster than the chain of command can react, so the higher up the chain you go, the less likely it is that leaders will be making timely decisions. Local commanders can and should be entrusted to conduct strikes and operations within their area of responsibility and to take appropriate care to avoid collateral damage to civilians and property. This expanded authority needs to be tempered: clear boundaries still need to be established. For example, high risk operations should still require oversight and approval from CENTCOM and Washington; especially those with political implications, like any operations or strikes in Pakistan.

Additional support from NATO is also a positive aspect, from many points of view. For one thing, it allows the United States to focus on one kind of mission: combat missions against the Taliban in support of the Afghan Army to reclaim lost territory. Rear area security, training and capabilities development and other support missions can best be left to our allies, who have good experience in these tasks and who might be less willing to devote themselves to active combat. That will add to the burden of the few remaining infantry brigades, which are stressed enough already, but it is a smart measure that will make it easier to win agreement from our partners[2].

Integrating all aspects of US power is a nice, catchy phrase that means nothing. Considering that Mr. Trump himself admits that we have spent billions in military expenditures and in civilian aid, what aspect of US power has not been applied to Afghanistan? I’ve nevertheless listed this as a positive because it is refreshing to see that Mr. Trump is not merely planning on a “fire and fury” approach. Any hope of a successful exit from the Afghan quagmire will require us to return to the concept outlined by President Bush in 2002: a Marshall Plan to rebuild the nations shattered infrastructure, economy and institutions. That will require a combination of military, economic and diplomatic force: but it is not yet clear that this is what the President actually has in mind.

Negative Aspects

One of President’s key conclusions goes unchallenged and seems obvious, but it is only conventional wisdom. Mr. Trump declares:

“The consequences of a rapid exit are predictable and unacceptable….A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda….”

However, it is not at all obvious that this would be the case. The most likely outcome of a precipitous US and NATO withdrawal would be a complete collapse of the Kabul regime and the restoration of a Taliban government over most of the country. Before 2002, there was no power vacuum in Afghanistan: Taliban rule was oppressively strong. It is true that they harbored Al Qaeda, whose founders had fought alongside them against the Soviets; but that is hardly a guarantee that they would do so again if they returned to power. Given the experience of the past 16 years, why would they invite renewed American reprisals and retaliations by doing so? Yet the assumptions of what a post-American Afghanistan would look like remain unquestioned, preventing debate and closing option sets for decision makers[3].

Another critical deficiency is the complete lack of detail surrounding the plan. It is full of soundbites, but lacks substance. What exactly is an “honorable outcome”: the unconditional surrender of the Taliban? What exactly are the “conditions on the ground” that will allow the US to withdraw troops: no violent attacks anywhere in Afghanistan for 6 months? Complete control of all provinces by the Afghan Army? What are the new operational limits for local commanders and how to we ensure that CENTCOM and Washington retain sufficient oversight to avoid unnecessary political complications? What are the criteria and measures of progress that we will demand of the Afghan government? This is the minimum information required by the American public to determine whether this is a strategy we support. Mr. Trump declared:

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”

That is good operational security. But that is not an excuse for not sharing critical strategic objectives with the American people. It is to be hoped that the Administration will release more details on this important points; otherwise, this is merely a recipe for continually moving goal posts and perpetual war.

On this point, it is necessary to call out President Trump for grossly simplifying former President Obama’s approach when he calls it “time-based”. There was a thought-through reason for imposing a time table on the US deployment: to force the Afghan government to take its security problems more seriously and solve them, rather than leaning on the Americans forever. It was, in other words, the opposite of a “blank check”. Furthermore, conditions on the ground do not dictate strategy: the influence it and may dictate tactics, but strategy is a political exercise not a military one. What happens to President Trump’s new approach if conditions on the ground never change?? What if the Taliban and the Pashtuns continue to resist US- and Afghani government forces? Will we then never leave?

It is a good short-term negotiating tactic to demonstrate “commitment” and willingness to stick at it; it can change perspectives on cost of continued conflict and may result in a negotiated solution being reconsidered by both parties. On the other hand, this should not be confused with true “skin in the game”. So when the President says:

“America’s enemies must never know our plans, or believe they can wait us out.”

The first part is right on, that’s just common sense. The second part is just nonsense. The Pashtuns can ALWAYS wait us out. They live there. Full stop. There are forty million of them; they can and will absorb far more casualties to win back their land than the US will be willing to afford to deny it to them. Expecting them to give up or to abandon the Taliban through military action alone is foolhardy and displays great ignorance of Pashtunwali, the ethical code that unites the tribes as not even religion does[4]. It might be possible to split the Taliban from their Pashtun base; in fact, this is a necessary precursor to any stable settlement. Most Pashtuns are heartily sick of war, destruction, poverty and the severity of the Taliban. However, they are not keen on being ruled by foreigners – including the rampantly corrupt Kabul regime – and they are not in a position to oppose the Taliban themselves. Mr. Trump’s policy speech doesn’t mention any of this: he emphasizes killing terrorists.

It is hard to argue with the “burden-sharing” approach to the Afghan government and military, but it is also hard to differentiate that from the current strategy. The Afghan government has never had a “blank check” – see my comment above – though the early Karzai period might come close to it. The conditionality expressed by Mr. Trump has not been defined: what does he mean by progress? This seems to contradict an earlier statement where he says:

“…we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again.”

Apparently we will be dictating, to the Afghan government at least, and setting goals against which we will measure their “progress and determination”. But clearly that cannot mean only their determination to fight the Taliban. So if we are measuring progress outside of actual combat, how is that different than nation-building? The biggest problem of the Afghan government is that it is so corrupt. Sending aid to it is like trying to fill the Marianas Trench, none of it reaches the provinces. The military is also thoroughly corrupt, leading to dismal morale in the troops and no fervent desire to bleed for their country. For the Afghan government and military to have enough popular support to actually stand up to the Taliban by themselves, then these institutions need to be purged and made stronger. A.k.a. nation-building. “Nation-building” means creating a climate and providing assistance to a nation so that it can construct strong institutions that will hold up after the assistance is withdrawn. How is that different from what Mr. Trump is proposing?

The new strategy makes no mention of any possible negotiation with the Taliban.

Changing our approach to Pakistan – that sounds great, except that it has already been tried…and more than once. The Bush Administration tried different strategies to pressure the Pakistanis; the Obama Administration tried different strategies to pressure the Pakistanis; now the Trump Administration will need to learn the lesson that neither carrot nor stick will alter the reality that Pakistan has an existential interest in the Pashtuns, who are the main supports of the Taliban. There are almost 30 million ethnic Pashtuns living in the border regions of Pakistan and there have been and still are secessionist movements who want to create “Pashtunistan”, a fusion of the Pashto-speaking regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In order for Pakistan to close the Taliban’s “safe havens” in the border regions it would have to either: 1. Agree to allow US forces to actively pursue the Taliban into Pakistan and launch air and ground strikes; or 2. Use the Pakistani military to conduct these same missions in coordination with US forces in Afghanistan. The former is a gross violation of national sovereignty that no Pakistani government could possibly agree to and survive, while the second is an open invitation to widespread terror campaigns throughout the country, if not open civil war. In fact, Pakistan already suffers from a terrible scourge of domestic terrorism, which is directly linked to its irreconcilable position, caught between US demands and those of its Pashtuns. Every time the US has ratcheted up the pressure on the Pakistanis, the result has been a wave of violent attacks, which have resulted in 22,000 civilian and 7,000 military/security fatalities since 2001.

Expecting any combination of incentives or threats to radically change Pakistan’s attitude towards the Pashtuns and the Taliban is a fantasy. Former Generals Mattis and McMaster should know better.

They should also know better than to expect Islamabad to react well to a proposal that expands Indian influence in their backyard. The rivalry between the two nuclear powers has already resulted in three wars and one “mini-war” in 1999; additionally, Pakistan has violent border disputes with its larger neighbor over Kashmir and Jammu, the Siachen Glacier and their maritime frontier. The Pakistanis consider it a strategic imperative – even an existential one – to prevent India from expanding its presence in Afghanistan. Not only would this raise the prospect of India flanking Pakistan’s long northern border, complicating an already difficult defensive situation: it creates a nightmare scenario of India actively backing the Pashtun separatists in their aspiration to dismember Pakistan in their pursuit of a “Pashtunistan” homeland. Remember that India has already dismembered Pakistan once: the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War resulted in the invasion of Eastern Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. The Pakistanis suffered 35,000 casualties and had 98,000 prisoners taken in that conflict.

No strategy that combines “full Pakistani cooperation” and “expanded Indian role” can possibly succeed. The two are mutually exclusive.

Summary Analysis of the President´s Proposal

The policy outlined by President Trump lacks originality, offering only minor changes from the unsuccessful approach attempted by former President Obama. It precludes any possibility of brokering a power-sharing agreement between the various Afghan factions that includes the Taliban. It repudiates “nation-building” without explaining how conditions for a stable and peaceful country can be met by a corrupt, inefficient and partisan government that excludes the Pashtuns. It includes two core pillars that go against fundamental interests of Pakistan. It fails to answer the most pressing question of all: why should the Afghan guerrillas stop fighting? They have been at war since 1979. If their resistance did not crumble when the US and NATO forces “surged” to over 130,000 troops, why should they tremble at the arrival of a few thousand more? Despite assurances to the contrary, this strategy bears the mark of being written by men who are convinced that there is a still a military solution to this problem; that somehow, gutting it out with a few thousand more troops for one or two or three more years will make all the difference. It is a policy that staves off defeat, but holds no discernible hope of victory.

Americans can brace themselves for four more years of war.


Sources and Notes

[1] Seth G. Jones, “The Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,” W.W. Norton & Company, 12 April 2010

[2] I note that Mr. Trump is effusive in his praise of our allies, when he needs them; but only when he needs them.

[3] I don’t suggest that having the Taliban regain power in Afghanistan is a desirable scenario, especially not for the Afghanis. But the United States already deals with many unsavory regimes as well as many lawless areas and we do not deploy troops in the vast majority of these. Why then is Afghanistan treated differently than Libya or Somalia or Yemen or Mali or in Northeastern Nigeria, all of which are “lawless” states or regions that host Al Qaeda affiliates?

[4] One of the basic tenets of the code are “turah” – bravery – obligating a Pashtun to resist any invader of his family, his property and his land from any invader (including another Pashtun tribe). Another is “hewaad” – homeland – the obligation to defend the homeland of the Pashtuns. Simply the fact that the Taliban are almost all Pashtuns creates a link of obligation which at least predisposes even non-Taliban to favor them over outsiders trying to kill them.

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