President Trump’s deliberative approach to formulating a new Afghanistan strategy has drawn fire from every corner of the political spectrum. That ended Monday night, when he announced a new long-term approach to Afghanistan and South Asia designed to achieve an ‘honorable and enduring outcome.’
In a major break with the past, Trump’s ‘principled realism’ strategy, is conditions-based rather than driven by arbitrary timelines. It will employ military, diplomatic and economic instruments of power, but eschews nation-building and curtails the pursuit of democracy as an end in itself.
It will aggressively ramp up pressure on Pakistan, develop a strategic partnership with India on economic development in Afghanistan and greatly strengthen counterterrorism operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre of the Islamic holy war. The government of Afghanistan will, conditionally, be required to carry its share of the economic, military and governance burden.
Developing a realistic strategy for the Af-Pak theatre is no easy task. This is arguably the most complex theatre in the world, a condition exacerbated by the fact that the last two administrations botched the war there in both concept and execution. The problem started a few months after 9/11.
Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks from Tarnak Farms in southern Afghanistan. Immediately after the trade tower debacle — a plot developed for years under the nose of President Clinton — President Bush struck out with a fast and furious unconventional warfare campaign. In less than three months, a team of CIA agents, intelligence specialists, special operations forces and Afghan northern alliance fighters overthrew the Taliban government, kneecapped al-Qa’ida leadership, and they forced most of their remaining forces back into Pakistan.
Although bin Laden escaped for the time being, that plan established a benchmark for cogent strategy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a top priority, Bush then took his eye off of Afghanistan. Resources still poured in there, but for the rest of his administration most American resources went to Iraq.
It wasn’t until a new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine came out in December 2006 that the idea of an integrated civil-military strategy was launched. It took over two years to ripen on the vine, but it finally got off the ground when President Obama named General Stanley McChrystal as Commander of allied forces in Afghanistan in May 2009.
McChrystal pursued COIN aggressively, until Obama fired him thirteen months later for talking too honestly to Rolling Stone. His replacement, General David Petraeus, pursued a full-spectrum COIN strategy there, as did his successor General John Allen.
Obama, however, was more interested in getting out of Afghanistan than he was in ensuring that the country would never again be used to plan terrorist attacks on the United States. That, coupled with a profound naiveté about warfare, led him to order a troop surge in December 2009 and simultaneously proclaim that it would last only eighteen months. Then, in June 2011, Obama blithely announced to the world that the U.S. would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The announcement stunned those of us on the ground there and, as with Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, it proved to be a deadly mistake. The Taliban acted predictably, waiting until most coalition troops left to aggressively start taking terrain.
In November 2015 the government controlled or influenced about 72 percent of all Afghan districts. By the time Trump took office in January 2017, that number had dropped to just 52 percent.
Confronted with the mess left over by his predecessors, it’s little wonder that it has taken Trump seven months to settle on a long-term strategy for U.S. engagement in the region.
Any long-term plan for Afghanistan must confront four strategic realities. First, it must cover the entire Af-Pak theatre and fully integrate with the larger strategy for fighting the global Islamic jihad. Second, there is no conventional ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in Afghanistan, and it must be flexible enough to guide U.S. action on the long road to what will ultimately be a negotiated settlement. Third, simply abandoning the field would have profound, adverse and long-term national security consequences. And fourth, since Afghanistan’s political regime is so unstable, any long-term strategy for the Af-Pak theatre must be both adaptable and resilient.
I have argued — as have others — that we need an enduring military partnership with Afghanistan, including a long-term platform for conducting counterterror operations there and elsewhere in South Asia. This is especially critical since 20 of the 98 designated foreign terrorist organizations in the world operate in the Af-Pak theatre. To work, however, any Afghanistan strategy must deal far more aggressively with Pakistan. To be sustainable, it must also focus on stabilizing the Afghan government and Afghan economy.
Trump has now come to closure on a strategy that is largely consonant with this thinking. It hits on all cylinders, and it is flexible enough to adapt as circumstances evolve. With the new strategy in place, look for quick action in the field and fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan and India. It’s about time.
Trump’s deliberation on formulating an Afghanistan strategy has paid off in spades. Political snipers will re-focus on the substance of the strategy, but for the first time in years, there is a blueprint for moving forward in Afghanistan that makes strategic sense.