By Daniel DePetris
“What’s the point of Donald Trump’s Afghan Surge?” That was the question posed by Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University and an elite member of the realist school of foreign policy, in his latest column in Foreign Policy magazine. The question, of course, is in reference to the Trump administration’s current discussions on U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, a discussion Washington foreign policy insiders expect will include an increase of approximately 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops.
It’s no secret the Afghan national security forces have been struggling to resist Taliban offensives over the past two fighting seasons, notwithstanding the $71 billion of U.S. taxpayer money already spent to build up a semi-professional Afghan army and police force. Afghan military casualties have skyrocketed ever since U.S. and NATO soldiers handed over security responsibility and combat duty in 2014, and the desertions, attrition, retirements, and ghost-soldiers have been constant problems within Afghanistan’s security forces.
President Trump, a man who has given his field commanders and the Defense Department wide latitude to make decisions concerning troop numbers and resources, is highly likely to sign off on whatever recommendation the Pentagon submits to the White House. As Walt suggests in his piece, that means President Trump is very close to making some of the same mistakes in Afghanistan that President Barack Obama made during his first year in office. As Walt writes, "It is...reminiscent of the situation Barack Obama faced back in 2009. Military officials pushed hard for an even bigger troop increase then, and a neophyte president bowed to the pressure despite his clear misgivings.”
Walt is right on the money. That the situation in Afghanistan as it exists today is eerily similar to the situation President Obama confronted in 2009 is proof no matter how much the U.S. pays, we cannot fix Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s capacity to control the security situation is deteriorating to such a level that the Taliban is re-establishing the very shadow government apparatus that the 2010-2011 U.S. troop presence was supposed to eradicate.
The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may be a friendlier partner to the United States than Hamid Karzai, but the political deadlock, levels of corruption up and down the political ladder, and delays in scheduling parliamentary elections are almost identical. The sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal regions—and in Pakistan’s cities—that the Taliban and Haqqani Network have been able to depend on for the last 16 years is akin an insurance policy that never lapses. The only major difference between 2009 and 2017 is the number of troops being considered for deployment; instead of increasing the U.S. force by another 30,000, the Trump administration is contemplating 5,000 soldiers and looser rules of engagement for offensive air operations in support of the Afghan army.
At no point in time have defense officials working on Afghanistan policy provided a convincing explanation as to why they believe 5,000 trainers and advisers mentoring Afghan troops lower down the chain-of-command will successfully pacify the country when 140,000 foreign combat troops could not.
The big issue here is not about troop numbers, rules of engagement, or timetables, but about the failed strategy of nation building in Afghanistan.
Keeping the American people safe is the first job of the federal government, so enhancing U.S. intelligence resources in Afghanistan and using military force when a terrorist plot is imminent should always be on the list of U.S. concerns. There is nothing controversial about self-defense, and the United States shouldn’t apologize when it must deploy its military to snuff out a terrorist organization.
However, engaging in a social engineering experiment, ridding the entire Afghan political system of corruption and financial mismanagement, determining how Afghans should govern themselves, and creating an Afghan army strong and resilient enough to keep control over the entire country are completely objectives that are entirely different. This is the unfortunate reality, even if Washington still refuses to acknowledge it.
Proponents of the status quo will reject any recommendation that doesn’t increase U.S. investment in Afghanistan. Realists, pragmatists, and the American people call it good old-fashioned common sense.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on May 24, 2107. Read more HERE.