Elephants in the Room
Here’s How Trump Can Win America’s Longest War
Trump could succeed where his predecessors haven't: in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan is vitally important and President Donald Trump can still win it. Despite the Trump administration’s other preoccupations, it has the opportunity to avoid its predecessors’ mistakes and bring the war to a long-delayed yet successful conclusion. But this would take more than the small additional deployment of troops that the administration is considering.
The war is important because al Qaeda has not been defeated and is still a threat to U.S. national security. Americans are understandably concerned about the Islamic State and the war in Syria, which has come to overshadow al Qaeda and the war in Afghanistan since 2014. But the rise of the former does not make the latter less dangerous. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain dedicated to attacking U.S. interests and the United States.
In fact, al Qaeda almost certainly has better long-term prospects than the Islamic State. In its few years of existence, the Islamic State has managed to make enemies of Iran, Russia, and the United States, a singularly inept diplomatic performance that all but guarantees its eventual defeat. Al Qaeda, by contrast, has managed to survive, metastasize, and spawn new movements and copycats for 25 years.
Additionally, the war in Afghanistan is an important test of U.S. leadership, reliability, and resolve. The United States signed two strategic partnership agreements with the Afghans — in 2005 and 2012 — and a bilateral security agreement in 2013 envisioning a ten-year security partnership. American statesmen from both parties have spent over 15 years promising to stand by the Afghans in their fight.
If the United States leaves Afghanistan precipitously, if U.S. troops withdraw before Afghan security forces can fight independently, and if the Taliban subsequently regains control of all or part of the country — it will give renewed safe havens to al Qaeda and other jihadists. Furthermore, it will damage the credibility of America’s other alliances and its deterrent posture. This would result in damage the world can’t afford, while Russian President Vladimir Putin appears intent on testing U.S. resolve in Europe and exploiting divisions in the NATO alliance.
The war can still be won — in the sense that the United States can still meet its most important strategic objectives. The high aspirations for Afghanistan that prevailed from 2001 to 2004 are out of reach because the United States never lost an opportunity to make a mistake. Former President George W. Bush erred by insisting on a light-footprint approach that inadvertently created a vacuum of governance and security. The vacuum of power in rural Afghanistan subsequently allowed the Taliban to regroup and begin its insurgency in 2005.
Former President Barack Obama built on changes Bush made in his last two years in office and rightly increased U.S. military presence and civilian reconstruction assistance in the region. But he undermined his own policy by announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops on a preset timetable. His withdrawal signaled to the Taliban that it could simply wait the Americans out — which it has done. That approach also gave Afghan officials an incentive to hedge their bets, with damaging consequences for Kabul’s state-building efforts.
The Trump administration has inherited the longest war in U.S. history, and one that the American people have largely tuned out. It has gone on so long that few foreign-policy experts have tracked the war consistently for its entire duration. As a result, few have the adequate historical background or perspective to assess the war’s progress or prospects. Critics sometimes assert that if the United States hasn’t managed to win the war by now, it must be unwinnable. What has the United States not tried over the past 16 years that it could plausibly try today?
The United States has not given adequate military assistance, civilian assistance, or the time and patience required for them to take hold. Bush was willing to give the war all the time and patience it needed, but not enough troops or reconstruction money; Obama did the reverse. Trump now has the opportunity to give both.
Fortunately, the war does not require the 100,000 U.S. troops that were deployed in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012. The United States has succeeded in training and building an Afghan security force of some 350,000 soldiers and policeman. Keeping those troops in the field will require some $6 to 8 billion of U.S. assistance per year for the indefinite future — cheap compared to the cost of deploying U.S. troops halfway around the world, and a low price tag for the national security interests at stake.
Those Afghan troops still require U.S. trainers and enablers to provide key capabilities such as logistics, intelligence, air support, medical evacuations, and communications. How many U.S. troops need to be in Afghanistan? That depends on their mission. General John Allen told the Senate Armed Service Committee in February that he needed “a few thousand more” than the 8,400 troops currently deployed. If U.S. troops are limited — as they are at present — to training Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism operations, something in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000 may be appropriate. That appears to be what the Trump administration is currently considering.
It is probably not enough. U.S. troops should be given a third mission: providing support to the Afghans’ rural counterinsurgency efforts. Without such efforts, the war will remain in stalemate. With such efforts, such as the Village Stability Operations program and other rural security and policing programs that the U.S. military has tried in past years, the Afghans made demonstrable progress against the Taliban. General David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, estimated that a long-term, stay-behind force of some 25,000 to 35,000 troops would enable the United States to conduct the full range of missions required not only to stabilize the war but also to help the Afghans eventually win it.
Finally, the Trump administration needs to significantly increase U.S. civilian assistance to state-building efforts in Afghanistan. A stable government is an essential prerequisite for a U.S. withdrawal. Leaving behind a weak, corrupt Afghan state is a recipe for perennial instability and political violence, and it simply perpetuates the governance vacuum that enabled the Taliban insurgency to arise in the first place. Although critics inevitably warn about the fabled dangers of nation building, it is unclear what path to victory and withdrawal exists that does not include a stable Afghan government.
Most casual observers can be forgiven for believing the United States has poured limitless money down a sinkhole in Afghanistan to no effect. It does not help that media outlets repeat the misleading figure that the U.S. has spent over a trillion dollars on the war. Nearly all that money has been spent on ongoing military operations, which is normal in wartime and does not contribute directly to state building.
A much smaller amount — about $117 billion — has been spent on foreign assistance. That money has been spent over 16 years. On a per capita, per year basis, Afghanistan ranks as an average or below-average reconstruction and stabilization mission compared with similar operations, like Bosnia or Kosovo. And about two-thirds of that money was spent on building the army and police. Of the relatively small amount of money devoted to governance and development, most has gone towards large-dollar, high-profile activities, like national elections, counter-narcotics operations, and the ring road.
Donors prefer to spend money on large, flashy projects. The slow, tedious, and unglamorous work of training bureaucrats, reengineering policymaking procedures, investing in basic literacy, organizing land records, and paying judges is the real stuff of state building. Despite 16 years of promises, donor conferences, and policy plans to do this kind of work, the international community has actually spent very little money on any of it. It is no wonder the Afghan government is still one of the least capable and most incompetent in the world.
The Trump administration’s move toward increasing the U.S. troops presence in Afghanistan is a welcome sign. Trump should go further. The United States needs to change the mission of U.S. troops to include support for the Afghans’ counterinsurgency efforts, deploy enough force to break the stalemate with the Taliban, spend the money required to keep the Afghan army in the field, and mount a serious state-building effort in Kabul.
None of these policy options are politically infeasible or fiscally onerous. The war is key to a number of America’s national-security interests in South Asia, the Middle East, and around the world. And, to be blunt, winning a war is more popular than losing one. For an administration grappling with scandal and low approval ratings, putting a win on the board should be an easy call.
Photo credit: JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images