What’s the Point of Donald Trump’s Afghan Surge?
And four other questions the President's team needs to answer before expanding America’s longest war.
Having previously promised to get the United States “out of the nation-building business,” President Trump is contemplating sending 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. It’s a move that is said to be strongly backed by White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (reportedly leading some in the White House to dub it “McMaster’s War”). It is also 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. Obama’s “surge” ultimately accomplished nothing -- as some of us warned at the time -- and this new effort to kick the can down the road is likely to suffer a similar fate.
Having previously promised to get the United States “out of the nation-building business,” President Trump is contemplating sending 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. It’s a move that is said to be strongly backed by White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (reportedly leading some in the White House to dub it “McMaster’s War”). It is also 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. Obama’s “surge” ultimately accomplished nothing — as some of us warned at the time — and this new effort to kick the can down the road is likely to suffer a similar fate.
I don’t really think Trump understands any of the underlying issues, but McMaster — who served for several years in Afghanistan and has the reputation of being an independent thinker — should. Here are five questions someone should ask McMaster about this new policy, along with some background to each one.
Question No. 1: What is the strategic purpose behind this move, and how does it advance U.S. national interests?
Background: The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for so long that it is easy to forget why we’re there. In fact, I’m not sure I know anymore. We originally went there to oust the Taliban, after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But in a textbook illustration of “mission creep,” that original purpose soon morphed into a broad and open-ended and largely unsuccessful effort to support Afghanistan’s democratic transformation.
Back in 2009, Barack Obama justified his decision to send thousands of additional U.S. troops by saying the United States had to keep Afghanistan from becoming a “safe haven” for al Qaeda. But this rationale was always questionable, because al Qaeda already had better safe havens elsewhere and denying them access to Afghan territory would not reduce their capabilities very much if at all.
Nor is it clear that sending more soldiers to Central Asia today will make Americans safer back home. It won’t destroy the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or other radicals, and more likely may aid their recruiting, just as U.S. interference has in the past. Moreover, the actual danger Americans face from terrorism is in fact quite modest (though not zero), and best addressed by improved homeland security measures rather than by costly and endless nation-building efforts far from home.
I suspect the proposed reinforcement is designed to show we’re serious, halt the Taliban’s current momentum, and force it to the bargaining table. That’s an appealing notion, except the Trump team doesn’t have a diplomatic strategy in place and 5,000 more troops won’t be enough to turn the tide and convince our opponents to concede.
My fear, of course, is that the real purpose of this new move is simply to delay the admission of defeat, so that the top brass doesn’t have to admit it failed and a president who portrays himself as a “winner” won’t have to watch Afghanistan collapse on his watch. But that’s a pretty poor reason to demand more money from American taxpayers and additional sacrifices from U.S. troops.
Question No. 2: What is the United States going to do about the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries?
Background: The Taliban has long relied on sanctuaries in Pakistan and backing from Pakistani intelligence agencies. If Pakistan continues to tolerate the Taliban’s presence and provide some level of active support — and it almost certainly will — it will be nearly impossible for the United States or the Afghan army to defeat them on the ground. Why? Because they can slip across the border to safety whenever they are outgunned and live to fight another day.
Here’s the issue: Will this latest U.S. force increase do anything to alter this situation? If not, why expect it to succeed when past U.S. efforts failed? After all, the United States and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could not defeat the Taliban when there were more than 100,000 foreign troops in-country; how will raising the present number from roughly 13,000 to 18,000 make a difference without a fundamental change of heart in Islamabad?
Question No. 3: Will Kabul ever get its act together?
Background: A prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency campaign is a capable and legitimate local partner. This condition has been sorely lacking in Afghanistan, whose government is deeply corrupt and politically divided and whose security forces remain fragile and unreliable despite receiving billions of dollars of outside aid and countless hours of training by the U.S. and other militaries. This sorry situation helps explain why the government’s forces keep losing to their less well-armed and less lavishly supported rivals and why the government’s troops must still be propped up by an outside presence.
So how will sending a few thousand more U.S. troops address the endemic problems of the Afghan central government? Isn’t business-as-usual far more likely, especially when local officials realize Uncle Sucker is still willing to back them no matter what and still pouring in money that just fuels more corruption? Why should we expect this new effort to succeed when past efforts have foundered?
Question No. 4: What is your definition of victory, and what’s the anticipated timeline?
Background: Back in 2009, Barack Obama erred by setting a public deadline for his so-called surge. He did so to assuage public concerns about an open-ended commitment (and possibly to signal to the military that he couldn’t be rolled completely), but this misstep told our opponents just how long they had to wait before the United States began to leave and reduced their incentive to bargain. Not surprisingly, the deadline passed, the Afghan army wasn’t ready to take over, and the United States was still fighting in Afghanistan when Obama left office.
Trump may avoid this particular mistake, but he should have some idea of what success would look like and how long it will take to achieve. At what point could the United States “declare victory” and really mean it? Is it when there isn’t a single violent extremist left anywhere in Afghanistan? That is clearly an impossible task. Is it when the Taliban formally agrees to lay down all of its weapons and IEDs and transform themselves into a normal political party? That’s slightly more realistic, but won’t happen any time soon, if ever. Is it when the various warring parties strike a power-sharing deal that aims to end the fighting once and for all? Maybe, but what’s to stop the war from resuming afterwards?
I ask all these questions because U.S. policy in Afghanistan seems to have no clear direction or destination. Our troops and political advisors no doubt have plenty of goals and checklists and missions to perform and metrics with which to measure “progress,” but we seem to have lost sight of what genuine “success” would be and whether it is achievable in our lifetimes. I would love to know what McMaster thinks “victory” would be in this context.
Question No. 5: You first gained fame as the author of Dereliction of Duty, a courageous and insightful critique of military leadership during the Vietnam War. The book is a damning indictment of both civilian and military leadership during that war, and you criticized senior military leaders for not confronting President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara more effectively over their handling of the war. Are you concerned the same thing might be happening today, and that you and your colleagues might be making a similar mistake?
Background: Upward of 20 different generals have commanded the U.S. or ISAF effort in Afghanistan, going all the way back to 2001. None of them succeeded. The original attempt to capture bin Laden was bungled and today the Taliban control more territory than at any time since they were toppled in 2001. Yet over the past decade, a parade of U.S. commanders have offered Congress and the American people guarded but upbeat reports of our progress and assured them success was still achievable if we stayed the course. All it will take is more drone strikes, a few thousand more troops, a few billion dollars more each year, and more time. Does this situation sound familiar?
Don’t get me wrong: We expect our military to win when it is committed to battle, and we certainly don’t want commanders who are eager to cut their losses at the first sign of adversity. Even when the ultimate decision to fight rests with civilians, no military organization likes to admit it cannot accomplish the missions that politicians and the public expect of them (even if those missions are unrealistic). But these otherwise admirable qualities are a liability if they discourage military leaders from giving their civilian masters a brutally honest assessment of what the use of force can and cannot do, and a candid assessment of our prospects for success.
Sean Spicer never sent me my complimentary White House press pass, so I’m unlikely to get a chance to ask Gen. McMaster these questions directly. But maybe somebody else will. Ideally, Trump, as commander in chief, would ask them himself. But for some reason I don’t think that’s likely.
Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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