Still missing a strategy after 16 years in Afghanistan

By Daniel DePetris

More than 16 years after the first Special Operations Forces unit propelled from helicopters onto Afghan soil, does the United States have a strategy in Afghanistan?

The Trump administration is still trying to determine the answer to that question, which is why President Trump is sending National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to Afghanistan for a full review of Washington’s options. McMaster, Trump said, will be traveling to Afghanistan to “find out how we can make progress alongside our Afghan partners.”

“Progress” is an interesting term, because it’s been used by civilian and military leaders repeatedly for more than a decade and a half as a means to assure the American people that their sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers in uniform are undertaking a mission that is of the utmost importance to the national security of the United States.

When he embarks on his trip to Afghanistan, McMaster will have the unique opportunity to bring some balance into the policymaking process, particularly by putting forth alternative recommendations from the generals and field commanders who consistently ask for more troops, more time to finish the job, and more financial backing from Congress to keep the Afghan army operating at a semi-professional level. McMaster, in other words, would do President Trump a big favor if he focused less on resource requests and more on the assumptions that have been guiding U.S. strategy in that country for a long time.

The working assumptions are many, but they generally revolve around three significant themes. One, all the Afghan government needs is a little more time to coax the Taliban into negotiations. Two, the U.S. cannot withdraw until and unless ISIS and Al-Qaeda are defeated. And three, Afghanistan should be an independent and sovereign democratic state respected by its neighbors and treated as an equal player in the region.

The first assumption is the easiest to rebuff, even if asking for more time is a frequent recommendation from the commanders tasked with running the mission. If 16 years of American military engagement in the country — topped with $70 billion in security assistance — hasn’t provided the Afghans with enough time to get their army into fighting shape, their logistical lines running, their command-and-control system operating like a fine-tuned machine, and their senior officers from exhibiting poor leadership skills, there can be no rational expectation that another two, three, or five years could accomplish it .

Gen. John Nicholson —the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — seems to believe otherwise, which is why he requested an additional several thousand U.S. troops for the train-and-equip mission during his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. But can two or three thousand more U.S. trainers really compensate for small Afghan units, cut off from reinforcements and isolated in remote stretches of the country, from abandoning their posts or retreating to fight another day? If 120,000 coalition forces couldn’t do it, 12,000-15,000 simply cannot accomplish that result.

The second assumption, destroying ISIS and Al-Qaeda from the face of the earth, is the easiest argument commanders can make to help justify an increase in U.S. military involvement. The problem, however, is that this belief presumes that one can only conduct good counterterrorism policy with a long-term presence of tens of thousands of American troops — or that Afghanistan is the only prime recruiting ground for terrorists to congregate and hatch their plans.  It’s not as if ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the alphabet soup of groups in the jihadist lexicon are wanting for other options: they are, in fact, all over the place.

Even if terrorist groups didn’t have that luxury, they would still be able to operate easily enough.  In the 21st century, terrorists no longer require safe havens in ungoverned stretches of territory to plan or execute an attack on a target in another continent. All they need is a laptop and a message strong enough to capture the emotions of a single misfit willing to act on impulse.  We can bomb them to smithereens with the “mother of all bombs” and feel good about ourselves for a couple of days with the incessant press coverage, but even a 21,000 pound warhead won’t frighten terrorist groups and their sympathizers from pressing their advantage — with or without Afghanistan.  

Finally, the third operating principle — Afghanistan as a sovereign democratic state respected by its neighbors, making decisions for itself — is perhaps the most fanciful. One only needs to look at centuries of history to understand that, even if its people are fiercely independent and resistant to outsiders, Afghanistan has always been susceptible to the influence of more powerful countries.  A central government strong enough to monopolize violence in every corner of Afghanistan — a western-imposed theory embedded in the Afghan constitution — was and remains a fantastical notion, grounded more upon western conceptions than Afghan history.  Is there any wonder why scholars who have studied Afghanistan’s tribal structure for decades were opposed or reluctant to embrace a full presidential system, where a single power-broker makes most of the major decisions?

Afghanistan today is hardly an independent state in the conventional sense of the term. It resembles more of a chess piece in the wider geopolitical game between the region’s major powers than a rising state in Central Asia. Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China are all involved in one way or another in Afghan affairs. Chinese firms are financing large-scale construction and mining projects while the Pakistanis remain willing to provide financial, and logistical support to anti-Afghan insurgent groups to ensure that its Indian rival doesn’t get a leg up. Whether Washington would like this foreign meddling to cease is beside the point; in actuality, Afghanistan is a weak fish in a sea of sharks — all of which view Afghanistan as a strategic opportunity to one-up their competitors. You can put 200,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for the next century, and you won’t alter the dynamic.

As an army man, McMaster has some experience in Afghanistan. Despite his “can-do” attitude, he discovered the impossibility of eliminating corruption within the Afghan political system. One hopes that he took a valuable lesson from that experience — do what you can, but don’t insist on the unachievable. McMaster should carry that lesson on his sleeve when he flies a Chinook into Afghanistan, meets with Afghan officials in Kabul, and visits the U.S. troops still serving — and dying — in Afghanistan.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

 This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on April 19, 2017. Read more HERE.