- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
While I support President Donald Trump’s decision last week to recommit the United States to the war in Afghanistan, it’s not hard to understand why — 16 years on — people are cynical that the addition of several thousand more U.S. and NATO troops will have much of an impact on the conflict’s trajectory.
But to the cynics, I’d say two things. First, even if you’re right, even if all the Trump administration is doing is just enough not to lose, there’s still great value to U.S. national security in preventing the collapse of the Afghan state and the country’s restoration as a safe haven for terrorists determined to attack U.S. interests. Even more so knowing that the impact of a the Taliban and Al Qaeda victory over the Americans would — like the mujahideen’s defeat of the Soviet Union a generation ago — be pouring jet fuel on the fires of a global jihadist insurgency that is already burning out of control. Rather than being the leader who put radical Islamic terrorism on the path to defeat, Trump would be guaranteeing his legacy as the man who supercharged the threat exponentially, not just in Afghanistan but worldwide.
The second argument that I’d offer the skeptics is that some of the changes to U.S. strategy that the president announced last week — if fully implemented — could have a disproportionate positive effect on the battlefield’s dynamics. Contrary to the view of the cynics, these changes in fact represent major shifts from President Barack Obama’s approach to the war, not just minor adjustments. As such, they could prove positive surprises in terms of their impact over time in halting the conflict’s rapidly deteriorating trend lines. Three in particular merit special attention.
The end of artificial timelines
One of the most important of the changes was Trump’s declaration that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan would no longer be guided by artificial timelines, but by conditions on the ground. The significance of this change has been widely highlighted in post-speech commentaries, for good reason. You’d be hard pressed to find a military expert who doesn’t believe that telling the enemy when you’re going to draw down your forces or stop fighting is nuts — completely self-defeating. And yet that’s exactly what the Obama administration did, repeatedly.
The litany of Obama-era messages communicating to friend and foe alike that our heart really wasn’t in this fight still makes for depressing and dumbfounding reading. Even when he was announcing a surge of U.S. troops in December 2009, Obama found a way to convey a lack of resolve — declaring in the very next sentence that those troops would begin withdrawing in 18 months. Anyone with a calendar and half a brain knew that line — with all its ramifications for the war’s future course — had been crafted not with an eye to defeating the enemy, but to the president’s 2012 reelection campaign and the need to cater to a war-weary public. As was his wont, Vice President Joe Biden piled on a few days after Obama’s speech, driving home the point in case anyone had been too thick to miss it: “We’ve got to make it clear, we have, to the Afghans. You’re about to have control of your country. Lots of luck in your senior year.” Cue Taliban high-fiving.
In May 2014, safely reelected and focused like a laser on consolidating his legacy as the man who got America out of President George W. Bush’s wars, Obama doubled down on his timeline-driven strategy. With barely a reference to the situation on the ground, the president pledged that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would cease seven months hence at the end of 2014 — save for what he called the “narrow missions” of advising the Afghan army and conducting strikes against Al Qaeda. Simultaneously, the relentless withdrawal of U.S. troops would continue apace — from 32,000 at the time of his speech, to 9,800 at the end of 2014, to 5,500 at the end of 2015, to more or less zero by late 2016 and the end of his presidency.
Alas, as it turned out, not even Obama’s best-laid plans could survive contact with the ever-worsening battlefield reality triggered by his precipitous shrinking of the U.S. role. When faced with the prospect that rather than bringing the war to a responsible conclusion, his presidency could instead end with the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan state, Obama pulled up short — at first slowing the troop withdrawals and, in 2016, freezing them at the current force level of 8,400. Fresh in his mind no doubt was the disaster wrought by his 2011 rush to the exits in Iraq. Having the rise of the Islamic State forever linked to your historical legacy was bad enough. Adding the phrase “Taliban takeover” to the record wasn’t something, thankfully, that Obama was prepared to risk.
It’s of course impossible to predict with any precision the strategic effects that might flow from Trump’s rejection of an approach driven by timelines concocted by political operatives in Washington. But it seems equally impossible to suggest that it will have no effect at all. To the extent that war is in no small measure a test of competing wills, the reliability of a superpower’s resolve to stay in the fight still matters. The handoff from Obama, who for years already had one foot out the Afghan door, to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, empowered with an open-ended mandate to pursue U.S. objectives, will make a difference. The only question is how much and at what cost.
Waging war against the Taliban, again
A second potentially important change announced by Trump was his commitment that U.S. forces in Afghanistan “will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly.” The president noted, “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.” He pledged an end to micromanagement from Washington and promised to further expand authority for American troops.
The key question here, I think, is whether Trump’s true intention is to once again make the war against the Taliban a top priority for U.S. forces. That would be a big deal. The truth is that, incredible as it seems, ever since Obama announced the end of combat operations in 2014, the U.S. has been largely absent from Afghanistan’s most important battlefield — the one against the Taliban. While U.S. commanders were still permitted to strike the Taliban when it posed a direct threat to U.S. forces or when Afghan troops were in grave danger of being overrun, any offensive operations against the very forces that posed the greatest threat to the Afghan state were for much of that time off limits.
As described by Ronald Neuman, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, “we are no longer at war with the Taliban” was the nonsensical mantra repeatedly heard from Obama’s National Security Council, a policy that “left the Taliban free, except in the most extreme circumstances, to reinforce, maneuver and mass for attacks.” The drawdown of U.S. advisors consistently outpaced the readiness of Afghan units to take over. Most importantly, according to Neuman, from January 2014 to November 2016, U.S. air support for Afghan security forces was effectively withdrawn. Writing in 2016, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, seconded Neuman’s point, warning that the Taliban “has learned that it can mass for attack in many places without fear of NATO airstrikes.”
With that as context, who could possibly be surprised that the Taliban has managed to make alarming gains over the past few years, now controlling or contesting as much as 50 percent of the country? If Trump and Mattis were to reverse course and throw the U.S. military back into the anti-Taliban fight in a significant way, unleashing U.S. air power and pushing a larger contingent of U.S. and allied advisors and special forces closer to the front, it stands to reason that the impact on the war could in time be significant. You don’t need a doctorate in military affairs to figure out that if the most powerful military in the world goes from treating the Taliban as “an important partner in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process” that should not be actively targeted by airstrikes to a hostile insurgency that must be relentlessly attacked, the outcomes on the battlefield might be decidedly different.
As Trump noted in his speech, even prior to deciding on his Afghan strategy, he had already loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. forces. During the first six months of his presidency, the amount of U.S. munitions dropped in Afghanistan tripled from the same period in 2016, much of it against Taliban targets. But that was before Trump had settled the all-important question of whether he planned to abandon Afghanistan or stay and fight. Now that he has recommitted America to the war, and U.S. commanders have a clear strategic direction from the new commander in chief, the room for a sustained intensification of U.S. military effort against the Taliban could be substantial.
Even now, bombs dropped in Afghanistan remain a tiny fraction — in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 percent — of those used to target the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2016. And as my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Bill Roggio, has reported, until now the Taliban remain able to conduct easily identifiable, easily targetable day-long raids on Afghan government targets without interference by U.S. or allied air assets. Putting a stop to those operations, which have underpinned much of the Taliban’s recent success, would be a good start to shifting the tide of the war.
Stopping Pakistan’s double game
The third potentially game-changing element of Trump’s speech was his focus on the problem of Pakistan and its systematic support or tolerance for many of the most deadly forces arrayed against the United States in Afghanistan. It’s a threat that bedeviled both of Trump’s predecessors, neither of whom proved willing to bear the considerable risks of pursuing a sustained pressure campaign against a putative ally that is overflowing with radical Islamists and may have the world’s fastest growing stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric certainly suggested that he is prepared to take a much different and tougher course to compel a change in Pakistani behavior. His willingness to call out Pakistan’s double game on terrorism was largely unprecedented. What remains in question is whether he’s really willing to go where no president has gone before in actually lowering the boom on Islamabad. If necessary, is he ready to sanction high-level military and intelligence officials? Cut off aid? Systematically attack Taliban and Al Qaeda safehavens inside Pakistan? Designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism? Of course, even if he is, there’s no guarantee it would work. The unintended consequences could be severe. But if Trump does succeed, if he’s as good a negotiator as he says he is, the positive implications for the war in Afghanistan would be far-reaching, even revolutionary.
It’s difficult to say whether Trump’s Afghan strategy will actually achieve the victory that he promised — even if victory is narrowly defined. After so many years of sacrifice and frustration, who truly dares to be hopeful? But what shouldn’t be hard is rejecting the contention, made by some of Trump’s critics, that his speech was simply old wine in new bottles, Obama 2.0 dressed up in a lot of tough-guy rhetoric. After years of accelerating withdrawals and phony declarations about ending combat operations, Trump’s renewed commitment to stay the course, add additional resources, take the fight to the enemy, and end Pakistan’s double game represents a qualitative shift of potentially great importance. If implemented aggressively, adjusted as necessary, and sustained over time, the chances that it eventually will get us to where we need to be in Afghanistan — the establishment of a professional army that is largely capable of containing the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State with minimal U.S. combat support — have almost certainly improved considerably.
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