We must avoid perpetual war in Afghanistan

By Lt. Col. (ret.) Daniel L. Davis

At hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis admitted the Administration doesn’t currently have a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, but promised one by the end of July.  Given the number of troops his plan will reportedly include, however, the new strategy will at best ensure the war continues without resolution into perpetuity.  Rather than anchoring the United States to a state of permanent failure, President Trump should demand disruptive alternative policies that makes strategic success possible.  Fortunately, viable options do exist.

Numerous Senate and House committees have held hearings of late discussing Afghan war strategy, and there has been considerable debate among pundits regarding the number of troops that Mattis should deploy.  Lost in these discussions, however, is an examination whether the oft-stated objective (preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan to plan future terror attacks against the United States) is even achievable. 

Before troop levels can be set, an agreed-upon strategy has to be selected; before a strategy can be chosen, an achievable end-state must be identified.  For well over a decade, no achievable end-state has been discussed, debated, or assigned in Afghanistan – and that is the primary cause of the stalemate that currently afflicts US policy there.  

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks, President Bush stated clear and limited US policy was to initiate “carefully targeted actions” that were “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime...  By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.”

By the summer of 2002, those valid objectives had been fully accomplished.  America’s military performed brilliantly and achieved its important objectives.

The Taliban had been outright destroyed as a coherent entity and bin Laden, with all but a handful of his al-Qaeda fighters, had been driven from the country.  An effective course of action at that point would have been to begin transition by that autumn to a State Department-led mission focused on assisting the Afghan people in rebuilding their government, security forces and economy. 

Should any Afghan government have harbored or supported terrorists in the future, the military option would always be available – but a trillion dollar, multi-decade occupation spanning three US Administrations (so far) was not necessary.   

Since at least 2005, US policy has languished under two leach-like policy failures that have consistently ensured nothing beyond a stalemate can be achieved: a persistent unwillingness to demand an end to Afghan government corruption and cross-border support for the insurgency by Pakistan.  Until those two cancers are eradicated, no amount of US military power will end the war.

To an American audience, it is sometimes difficult to grasp how Afghan government corruption, however distasteful it may be, prevents US-allied forces from defeating the insurgency.  A few key examples will serve to illuminate the gravity of the situation. 

The most visible face of the Kabul government to the people are the police forces, more so than their army.  As has been painstakingly detailed by the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), the various divisions of Afghan police have been and continue to be deeply infiltrated by corruption.  In too many cases, positions of leadership are purchased, not earned through merit.   

An AAN study by Kate Clark released earlier this month revealed that those who purchase their positions have to recoup the investment, and “almost inevitably, (that) means police involvement in crime, including racketeering and drug smuggling, and/or making money from the ministry itself. This ranges from crooked contracts and pocketing the salaries of policemen who do not exist, to so-called ‘ghost policemen’.” 

The consequences of this corruption are clear, Clark says.  When policemen “extort money from travelers and protection money from shopkeepers and landlords, the legitimacy of the state is poisoned.”  When Hamid Karzai was president he added to the poison by seeking to install a number of crooked police generals to head each of the 34 provinces.  According to Human Rights Watch, a number of these men had been “implicated in murder, torture, intimidation, bribery, government corruption and interfering with police investigations.” 

When the top leaders take such actions, it infects the resolve of the men who must face the Taliban in combat.  A Reuters report from earlier this year described how numerous policemen were abandoning their posts to relentless Taliban attacks.  The reasons, however, weren’t because the fight was too hard or the men insufficiently trained.

Reuters explained that “on the frontlines, army and police deserters complain of commanders having no answer for deadly ambushes, no broader strategy for prevailing in the war, corruption among their leaders and poor food and equipment.” Barely a day passed without gunfire, ambushes, roadside bombs, the author wrote.

One of the policemen interviewed for the article said, “we were treated as if we had no value and our job was to get killed."  The US could quadruple the number of troop trainers it is scheduled to deploy, but unless the systemic corruption is addressed, the fighting spirit of the front-line policemen will remain inadequate and the people remain insecure.

Similarly, Pakistan’s cross-border support of the insurgency has been known for well over a decade.  I was first assigned duty in Kabul as an Army officer in 2005 and it was widely known even then that Pakistan was playing a double game.  Eleven years later nothing had changed.  In 2016 the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled “Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism?” 

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) said “Despite the mounting evidence of Pakistan’s collusion with global terrorism, Pakistan is among the leading recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, with Congress appropriating more than $33 billion to Islamabad since 2002.”  Yet despite this and other fiery rhetoric in Washington, no action has been taken to curtail Pakistan’s support or limit the financial support the US provides. 

So long as Pakistan knows it will not suffer consequences for supporting the insurgency, and dishonest officials in Afghanistan know there will never be consequences for their corruption, the war will continue without pause – and so long as Washington continues deploying US service members to fight a war that can’t be won, American men and women will continue to give their lives and blood in vain.

If Congress really “supports the troops,” as routinely claimed, and if President Trump genuinely wants to win the Afghan war, immediate changes are necessary.  Fortunately, alternative policies with achievable outcomes do exist.

The first order of business is defining an achievable end-state that secures America’s vital national interests.  The US may have a “national interest” in seeing Kabul effectively managed by a democratic government, but America’s vital national interest is in ensuring that the government in Kabul does not – like the Taliban regime pre-2001 – support or protect terror organizations that could threaten the United States. 

It is not necessary, therefore, that the government form in any specific way, but that it promise never to support terrorists and so long as it receives funds from the US, commits to reducing corruption to designated low levels.

It is a physical impossibility to “prevent” any terror entity from existing in Afghanistan – fortunately, US security does not depend on depriving all terrorists from holding any ground everywhere in the world to keep America safe. Therefore, this should not be the objective of US policy; why expend billions of dollars and the lives of our service members in pursuit of an unattainable objective?

It is key to understand that it is not necessary to control ground to protect the US homeland from terror attacks.  Having a robust global system of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), effective cooperation with the intelligence services of allied and friendly nations, and active cooperation between US local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies gives us the best chance to defend the United States from terror strikes.

US foreign policy, therefore, should be converted to a diplomacy-first approach that works with the military to contain radicalism in all its forms wherever it currently resides abroad, works to limit its spread, and cooperates with international partners to reduce the threat in those locations over time.   To the extent it is feasible, we should assist local populations in implementing locally-derived political solutions, but we can’t and shouldn’t impose our solutions on them.  When terrorists are discovered that are legitimate threats to American citizens or interests, they should be dealt with swiftly and authoritatively, wherever they may reside. 

By now, the mountain of evidence should convince even the most ardent supporter of current policy that it is impossible to kill one’s way out of an insurgency, and even less possible to kill all the terrorists abroad in an effort to keep us safe at home.

Not only is it impossible, stubbornly trying to force such measures to work serves to expand the terror threat, and it gives motivation to our enemies to continue recruiting and radicalizing new coverts.  By withdrawing from the tactical fight in un-winnable counterinsurgencies, we deprive murderous radicals the opportunity to fight against us in locations where its relatively easy for them to travel.  If their leaders can’t produce on promises of providing opportunities to battle US troops, the motivation for them to join drops precipitously. 

Even for those who still desire to fight against the US, their ability to bring the fight to our shores is orders of magnitude more difficult than traveling to, say Syria, and few will ever succeed.  It is also instructive to realize that there is now presently no shortage of desire on the part of terrorists to come to the US and launch attacks, and the threat would not increase if we ceased fighting on their terms in isolated international locations.  The obligation to defend our borders against terror infiltrators remains categorical either way.

Since 2003 we have demonstrated conclusively that attempting to “fight them over there” does not make America safer over here and has unequivocally served to increase the terror threat.  It should now be an imperative to try different strategies that take the best of what has worked in the past, and designate achievable end-states whose accomplishment will result in greater security for American citizens here and our interests abroad.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on June 28, 2017. Read more HERE.