In the middle of everything else, President Donald Trump is expected to decide on his strategy for Afghanistan soon. The Pentagon wants more troops, and it’s not clear what the president will decide. Trump has said so little about America’s longest-running conflict that he has left us few clues about his intentions.
Countless strategies have emerged over the course of America’s longest war, now in its sixteenth year. None has worked. More than a dozen international terrorist groups operate along both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Afghan security forces have fought bravely but lack adequate air power, leadership, retention rates and coalition support to stem the tide of a resurgent Taliban, which now controls more ground than at any point since 2001. Just last month, Taliban fighters managed to get through seven police checkpoints to a military base in Balkh where they slaughtered more than 150 Afghan soldiers. And the wildly unpopular Afghan National Unity Government’s only real achievement after nearly three years is its own survival, bankrolled by donors bankrupt of ideas. The war is not going well.
Almost certainly, Trump’s new strategy will focus on how to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan territory for launching or planning attacks against the United States. This is nothing new. In fact, defeating such groups – from al Qaeda to ISIS – has been America’s core strategic objective in Afghanistan since invading the country in 2001.
But how to achieve that goal is again up for debate. Should the U.S. send more troops to assist Afghan security forces? Should military rules of engagement be relaxed? Are strikes against Taliban leaders in Pakistan warranted? Or should starting peace talks with the Taliban be prioritized? And how do the Americans get regional players – Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China – on board?
To change the trajectory of the war, a comprehensive political, economic, military, diplomatic and regional strategy is needed. The Obama administration knew this, but it obsessed over troop numbers, drawdown plans and ending the war. As Team Trump mulls options, they must avoid reinventing the flat tire. In particular, they need to resist the notion that they can turn the tide with more troops and beat back the Taliban. Instead, they need to recognize that success in Afghanistan will only come through a political settlement among all major Afghan factions, including the Taliban.
We’re hardly the first to argue for peace talks. In early 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced America’s intent to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban as a central tenet of its Afghanistan policy. A flood of experts in recent months has declared that now is the time to talk with the Taliban. And there has been no lack of multilateral, regional, bilateral and Track-2 efforts to explore how to get talks going.
But meaningful peace negotiations are as elusive as ever. The Taliban don’t want to talk with an unpopular government in Kabul that they view as weak and illegitimate. They aren’t afraid of Trump. They also think they’re winning.
So, if winning on the battlefield isn’t possible and peace talks are a distant dream, what can be done?
For one, the U.S. should make an open-ended commitment of its troop presence. U.S. Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson has requested a “few thousand” more troops – up from about 8,400 now – to “break the stalemate” with the Taliban. But the number is irrelevant. The U.S.-led coalition couldn’t win with 140,000 troops on the ground in 2010, largely because President Obama had announced an arbitrary drawdown date. The Taliban (and their Pakistani sponsors) knew they could simply wait the Americans out. An indefinite U.S. presence would demonstrate resolve, inspire the Afghan security forces and help push back recent Taliban gains. It could also help buy time for the Afghan security forces and government to mature enough to set the table for meaningful talks.
Second, the central government in Afghanistan needs to gain support and improve performance. The Afghan struggle is ultimately going to be determined not by America’s geopolitical actions but by whom the Afghan people wind up supporting. Right now, the National Unity Government is floundering and deeply disliked (only the Taliban remain more unpopular). President Ashraf Ghani is undoubtedly a visionary, pro-Western technocrat – but he has also proven to be politically tone-deaf, surrounding himself with a narrow circle of eastern Pashtuns while alienating much of his already tenuous base. If peace talks are going to materialize, there needs to be a government in Kabul that is resilient, popular, broad-based and legitimate. And if Afghan security forces are ever going to succeed, they need to believe that the government in Kabul has their backs.
To some extent, this could be achieved by linking donor assistance to improvements in government effectiveness and anti-corruption efforts. But the 2019 presidential elections are of paramount importance. If those polls are like prior ones –fraudulent, inconclusive or resulting in a government that Afghans find illegitimate – then prospects for military victories or peace talks are out the window. Therefore, donor countries like the United States need to ensure those elections result in a new government perceived as legitimate, resilient and representative of all Afghans. As witnessed in 2014 (and 2009), that won’t be easy. And while the U.S. should not endorse any candidate, it is essential that the Americans appoint a senior official to spearhead donor efforts to knock heads together and ensure a positive outcome from the 2019 polls.
Third, the region needs to be on board. Russia has to stop its recent dallying with the Taliban. Saudi Arabia, China and the U.S. need to press Pakistan to squeeze the Taliban more. India needs to take steps to reassure Pakistan it is not a threat in Afghanistan. And the Iranians need to understand that the U.S. doesn’t want permanent bases on their border and intends to leave once there is a viable path to a stable, peaceful and friendly Afghanistan.
Undoubtedly, some in the White House will view withdrawal as the least bad option. Trump is clearly no fan of nation-building. Why, he might ask, should the U.S. spend billions over countless years and risk even more American lives in a hopeless war? Why not treat Afghanistan like Yemen or Somalia and just rely on special forces or missile strike to target terrorists?
This would be a grave mistake. If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, the Afghan state would likely collapse, with high potential for greater factional violence. India, Pakistan, Iran and others would increase support to their perceived allies in the conflict, exacerbating regional tensions and perhaps setting the scene for a disastrous showdown in South Asia. Pakistan and its 120 nuclear warheads would become more vulnerable, and Russia and China would look to exert even greater influence in the Americans’ absence. Finally, international terrorists would increasingly find Afghanistan an ungoverned and unstable space that provides sanctuary from which to plan attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
To be sure, there are already hundreds of ISIS fighters and other terrorists along the border. But a friendly Afghan government gives the U.S. and coalition troops a platform from which to track, contain and strike these terrorists in ways offshore bases would never allow. Maintaining this platform is costly, but the alternatives are considerably more threatening to America’s national interests.