Afghanistan is the United States’ longest war. Yet after 16 years of bloody fighting, there is no indication that Washington has a better sense of how to address that festering conflict. The administration of President Donald Trump is confronting the fundamental dilemma that he and his predecessor faced: how to end the overseas commitments that drain U.S. strength and resources without leaving a power vacuum in Afghanistan and signaling a loss of U.S resolve.
Afghanistan has presented U.S. presidents with difficult choices since George W. Bush invaded the country in 2001 in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington The initial victory — the Taliban government was quickly driven out of Kabul, eliminating the safe haven that al-Qaida enjoyed — was squandered by a refocusing of U.S. efforts on Iraq. The diversion of resources to Operation Iraqi Freedom allowed the Taliban to regroup and reform.
No government in Kabul was able to assert authority over the entire country, a failure that reflected hundreds of years of tribal rather than national affiliation, and was abetted by the readiness of the U.S. government to work with local leaders to consolidate power as well as a willingness to overlook corruption at all levels of government. The president of Afghanistan invariably looked weak or corrupt (or both), and lacked authority or legitimacy.
Failure to make progress prompted U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to campaign in 2008 on a pledge to end the war in Afghanistan, a laudable objective but one that President Obama could not fulfill given the consequences of a premature withdrawal and a resulting power vacuum in Afghanistan. Candidate and then President Trump appear to be repeating the same history. During the 2016 campaign, Trump echoed the Obama mantra that overseas wars sapped U.S. strength and that he would end the fighting quickly. He recognized growing fatigue among the U.S. public for wars without end.
Yet the generals know that Afghan security forces control less than 60 percent of the country and even the presence of 13,000 foreign troops has not helped stabilize the country or stop the sustained and increasingly heavy losses. Over 1,600 civilians lost their lives in the first six months of this year and that number is set to grow.
The Trump administration conducted an Afghanistan policy review. It was headed by Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who served in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. McMaster believes that the Obama administrations focus on drawing down U.S. forces sent the wrong signal to allies and adversaries alike. He prefers an open-ended U.S. commitment as a sign of U.S. resolve. To that end, he is reported to want to send 4,000 more troops to help Afghan forces reverse the tide of Taliban gains and help consolidate central government authority. Trump is said to be disenchanted with that approach and reportedly dismissed the new strategy when it was put forward in May.
In the interim, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been given authority to send another 3,900 troops to the country but he is reluctant to do so without a broader strategy. As a result, the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.
The enduring difficulties of crafting a successful strategy in Afghanistan are compounded by the particularities of the Trump White House. The president has a notoriously short attention span and has not been willing to focus on the details, preferring instead to rely on his gut instincts about the U.S. public’s stomach for supporting the battle. There are reports that Trump has a prickly relationship with McMaster and this undercuts the national security adviser’s clout when presenting or advocating options to the president. In keeping with his reality TV personality, the president is inclined to see it as a personnel issue — he blames Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and has reportedly suggesting firing him — rather than a failure of strategy.
There are no easy answers to the problems in Afghanistan. The national government in Kabul lacks legitimacy and its power and authority are sapped by corruption and local warlords. The military is taking shape but it needs help, both training and resources. More problematic is the meddling of neighboring countries, such as Pakistan that demand a say in political outcomes in Kabul because they see Afghanistan as critical to their own national security. Pakistan’s provision of safe haven for Taliban forces is one way that Islamabad preserves its influence in Afghan affairs.
Merely changing the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan will not solve this problem. A long-term, flexible strategy is required — something the president has demonstrated no inclination for or capacity to understand. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan looks set to continue to flail.