Wanted: An Afghanistan Policy

From start to finish, it took fewer than 45 months for the U.S. to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The U.S. entered into a war in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001, and we’re still there, 190 months later.  After two presidents, five secretaries of defense, and nine CENTCOM commanders, the Summer of 2017 finds Americans awaiting yet another administration’s policy to win the war in Afghanistan.

Six months into the Trump administration, the long-awaited Afghanistan strategy has not yet been articulated, much less implemented. When James Mattis, the sixth secretary of defense to oversee Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 12 we learned only that a new strategy will be unveiled sometime in mid-July.

Mattis admitted that America is not winning its longest war and hinted at adding 4,000 more troops. Is this a harbinger of something different in Afghanistan, or evidence of yet another administration perpetuating a 16-year-long “mission creep”?    

No one can say for sure what role the unpredictable Donald Trump will play in devising the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy, but we can probably rule out extremes.  A full-on, WWII-style fight aimed at victory is as unlikely as a full departure of all U.S. personnel.

Even a departure followed by a “bomb when necessary” strategy (a favorite of the “more rubble = less trouble” crowd, who prefer U.S. military might delivered from the relative safety of 35,000 feet above the problem) is unlikely.  At the televised hearing, when Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss) said that a pull-out would be “a massive mistake.” Mattis agreed that it would be wrong to “walk away.” 

The worst compromise might be simply to maintain the status quo of half measures, drone warfare, and restrictive rules of engagement imposed on U.S. ground troops.  

Perhaps Mattis will offer another counterinsurgency strategy focused on winning “hearts and minds,” spending money and showing Afghans that we are their friends. If they don’t know that by now, more USAID programs and bags full of money will not convince them.

Will the 4,000 additional U.S. troops be expected to train and form close partnerships with Afghan soldiers? This status quo measure becomes more difficult to defend every time another American soldier (or three) is killed (or wounded) by an Afghan soldier on patrol or in a “safe space.”  

A successful strategy in Afghanistan should emulate past successes there and avoid repeating past failures. The early victories in the war were achieved by small numbers of highly mobile, special operations forces and CIA paramilitary teams working with the Northern Alliance. The Afghans did most of the fighting, but we provided information, equipment, and tactics they lacked.   

A successful strategy should also look to American successes elsewhere in the world. 

When the Trump administration announced in April that it was sending troops to Somalia for the first time since the Clinton administration, it was not thousands or even hundreds, but dozens. On June 11, what the Pentagon calls an Al-Shabaab “command and logistics camp” in Somalia was destroyed by U.S. airstrikes partnering with the forces of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and his allies in the African Union. On July 2, they struck again

Most important, a successful Afghanistan policy must recognize that the Taliban is an unregenerate enemy.  If Eli Lake is right that “the objective for Trump’s strategy is to force the Taliban into peace talks and to push for a negotiated settlement,” then July will almost certainly bring another status quo policy destined to failure.  

Even before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, and right up to the Bush presidency, the Clinton administration negotiated with the Taliban. Before 9/11, the Bush administration negotiated briefly to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddha statues and to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to India. The Obama administration frequently negotiated with Taliban officials, perhaps in the hopes that treating them like legitimate politicians would make them act as such.  It failed when Clinton tried it, when Bush tried it, and when Obama tried it.  It will fail if Trump tries. 

The one thing everyone agrees on is that unlike Obama, Trump will not “telegraph” his policy by announcing numbers and dates.  But every day that we wait contributes to the inertia of the status quo and makes it more difficult to break free of our 16-year rut. 

If President Trump cannot end the status quo in Afghanistan, by the end of his first term he will be sending Americans to fight a war Afghanistan that began before they were born. If that’s not enough to motivate him, perhaps he will be moved by John McCain’s warning of increased Congressional oversight.  Speaking for the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain told Mattis, somewhat ominously, that “unless we get a strategy from you, you’re going to get a strategy from us.”

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.