Trump’s options for Afghanistan

By Daniel DePetris

This past June, during one of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s regular oversight hearings, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a blunt assessment about the war in Afghanistan: the U.S. and its partners in the Afghan government were not winning. In fact, the conflict has been at a stalemate for such a long period of time that the Trump administration recognized that a strategy review was desperately needed. Tonight, America will finally be given a plan from the White House––one that will either elongate the status quo or finally realize that the strength of weakness of America’s counterterrorism policy doesn't depend on Afghanistan’s political stability.

U.S. troops have been supporting the Afghan national security forces and propping up Kabul for so long that the president deserves time to explore options that are more creative than the conventional troop increase that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has proposed.

One of those unconventional proposals is the Prince option, named after former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince. Prince has burst onto the scene over the last few months, leveraging his contacts with the Trump White House in order to push his own solution to the conundrum that is Afghanistan: replace U.S. troops with security contractors and apppont a viceroy to take charge of all aspects of the war. McMaster and Mattis don't particularly like the idea, but this isn't stopping Prince from giving interviews on CNN, CBS, and in the Atlantic to lobby for it.

Would an infusion of 5,000 private security contractors, embedded with the Afghan army at the ground level, actually make a difference in the war? Prince seems to think so, but it’s difficult to see his plan as any different from what supporters of a modest troop surge are proposing. The tactics––training and advising Afghans and providing Kabul air support against the Taliban––would be the same; the mission––degrading the insurgency to the point where the Taliban leadership agrees to negotiate a peace settlement––is identical; and the overall policy objective––ensuring that the Afghan government survives long enough for it to acquire the capability to take charge of internal security––is the very same objective that the Obama administration sought to accomplish during its two terms. The only difference, it would seem, is that a Prince believes he can do what the Pentagon is already doing for a lot less money––$10 billion compared to the $40 billion-plus that Washington spends now.

As welcome as new ideas are, none of the options on the table dive into the fundamental question: does the United States need to remain in Afghanistan for five, ten, or 15 more years in order to safeguard U.S. national security interests with respect to terrorism? 

The de facto assumption in Washington has long been that a collapse of the Afghan government would provide Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and every other jihadist group with a safe-haven to plan and execute mass casualty attacks against Americans. But recent history demonstrates that controlling territory is not a requirement for terrorist groups in the 21st century. Multiple plots in Europe and the U.S. over the last two years, from the truck attack in Nice, France that killed 86 people to the San Bernardino shootings that claimed the lives of 14, were orchestrated by self-radicalized individuals who never traveled through a terrorist training camp before or had no direct connection to an established terrorist group. The notion that a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would prevent these kinds of self-radicalized or remotely-directed attacks from being carried out is like a doctor prescribing major surgery for a common cold: the remedy is not only unnecessary but a waste of resources and a misunderstanding of the problem at hand.

It has become a kind of cliche for those who study terrorism for a living, but all a terrorist group needs to cause violence in the West is a loud megaphone, a resilient social media presence, and the ability to disseminate propaganda that is compelling enough for a supporter or a sympathizer in France, Germany, or the U.S. to mow down civilians with a vehicle or kill people with knives. Terrorists will still be able to conduct the kinds of attacks we saw in Barcelona last week regardless of what Afghanistan’s political system looks like, which Afghan personality runs which Ministry, or which Afghan politician holds the most power. Those pining for an American escalation in Afghanistan ––whether it’s H.R. McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham, or Erik Prince––either refuse to acknowledge the new reality of terrorism or choose to ignore it in order to continue a status-quo policy that has resulted in nothing but a country with a corrupt political system wracked in an active civil war.

President Trump will announce his decision on U.S. troop levels tonight. Until then, we can only hope that he has the political courage to break from a foreign policy establishment that is offering the same recommendations covered in different wrapping paper.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on August 21, 2017. Read more HERE