The not-so-new strategy in Afghanistan

By Daniel DePetris

To Afghans who have been used to the violence within their country for the past 40 years, the suicide bombing in Kabul last weekend that killed more than 100 people was just one more terrorist attack in the heart of the capital city. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, which took place about a week after Taliban militants broke into Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and engaged the Afghan security forces in a day-long firefight. Kabul, once the safest city in the country—Gen. Joseph Votel, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, was in Kabul on the same day—is increasingly vulnerable to attacks that are bold and embarrassing to an Afghan government often at war with itself as much as it’s at war with the insurgents.

The Trump administration’s strategy for Afghanistan  is supposed to address many of the country’s problems. The plan includes an infusion of 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops; the deployment of American advisers closer to the front-lines; a revamping of the training program; and the more extensive use of air power. While the plan was unrolled as an innovation from the Obama administration’s calendar-based approach to the war, the Trump administration’s policy for stabilizing Afghanistan is more like old wine in a new and fancy bottle. In fact, nothing President Trump has authorized is strategically new, only tactically.

There is no strategy, plan, or operational concept the U.S. national security bureaucracy can cook up to make the Central Asian nation a semi-peaceful and semi-functional state. Sixteen years of trying and failing—and trying again—should be all the evidence Washington officials need to come to that conclusion. And yet for reasons of pride, hubris or a failure to see the world as it is, Washington evidently continues to see Afghanistan as a salvageable situation.

The reality is blunter: the war is an unsolvable morass. The foreign policy establishment must admit that doing more of the same will not work.

Embracing a minimalist view of the war is a way for the U.S. to make the best of a bad situation. This, however, will require U.S. officials to swallow hard and accept choices that, while not ideal, are the only way out of a conflict that is as intense as it has ever been.

Economic development, reconstruction, institutional building, election preparation, and anti-corruption programs—all of which has cost tens of billions of dollars to the American taxpayer—must take a back seat to the main objective: finding and finishing terrorists in Afghanistan who are planning or conspiring to attack the United States. Terrorism is the reason U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan in the first place, and terrorism should what is dictating U.S. policy now.

Can the U.S. protect and defend the homeland without propping up the government in Kabul indefinitely? Critics have a quick answer to this question: absolutely not. If the Afghan government dissolves, these people argue, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Haqqani Network would re-infiltrate the country and  again use Afghan soil to plot transnational attacks.

While the logic is attractive, it ignores several facts.

For one, if terrorist groups are looking for a safe haven, they don’t need Afghanistan. According to the U.S. State Department, there are dozens of safe havens around the world today that terrorists can use to fundraise or recruit—from the triborder region in South America to the southern Philippines.

Second, Afghanistan is already categorized as a safe haven. Indeed, even with 15,000 U.S. troops, constant U.S. Air Force patrols in the sky and hundreds of thousands of pro-government forces, the Afghan-Pakistani border region hosts the largest concentration of terrorist groups in the world. The U.S. homeland, however, remains safe due in large part to the improvements and innovations the U.S. intelligence community and America’s metropolitan police departments have made over the last decade and a half.

Will a collapse of the Afghan unity government really make a significant difference in the grand scheme, particularly when large swaths of Afghanistan are already outside of Kabul’s control? And can we really assume an Al-Qaeda and ISIS resurgence given the beating the Taliban experienced in 2001 for hosting terrorists bent on killing Americans? Are we really to believe the Taliban have not learned any lessons from that experience; that coddling terrorists is a great way to attract America’s big guns on your movement?

A dramatic pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would almost surely result in negative security consequences for the Afghan government. Kabul is so dependent on Washington for budget support, air power, salary payments, and logistics that it’s a guarantee the central government would suffer.   But the U.S. must look after its own interests first,  and no interest is served by continuing within the same paradigm as the last three presidencies. If a troop surge, a near exponential rise in bombing missions, and a train and advise mission didn’t work when George W. Bush or Barack Obama were president, the results aren’t going to be any different during the Trump presidency.

The U.S. should always be vigilant in protecting Americans from terrorism. If the U.S. intelligence community discovers an imminent plot being planned in Afghanistan, Syria, or anywhere else, it should take action and do so without  apology or reservation. U.S. officials, however, will have to apologize to the American people if they continue to implement the same basic strategy, supported by the same stale assumptions, with the same overzealous goals, delivering only repeated failure.

Serving as western counselors to the Afghan government, reconciling petty disputes between Afghan politicians, and ensuring the Ghani administration’s solvency is not Washington’s job. It never was when Operation Enduring Freedom started 16 years and three months ago, and it shouldn’t be Washington’s job now.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on February 2, 2018. Read more HERE.