Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other military men are often said to provide a stabilizing influence in the Trump administration, helping moderate the reckless policies favored by the president and his hardline chief strategist, Steve Bannon. But when it comes to Afghanistan, Trump and Bannon have been the cautious ones, resisting pressure from Mattis, a retired Marine general, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster to commit more troops and escalate America’s 16-year-old war.
The war is certainly going badly. Afghanistan’s government now controls just 60 percent of the country, terror attacks are common, and civilian and military casualties stand at record highs. According to reports, the Pentagon has pushed for several thousand extra American troops to train the Afghan military, break the stalemate, and force the Taliban to negotiate. Pakistan may also be pressurized to stop its support for militant groups in Afghanistan. This is broadly similar to President Obama’s approach.
The administration was supposed to have its Afghan strategy ready in July. But Trump, with the support of Bannon, rejected the plan and demanded a rethink. General McMaster has repeatedly tried to persuade the president into committing more troops, but to little avail. On July 19, according to NBC, there was a heated National Security Council meeting in which Trump complained that America was “losing” the war and threatened to fire General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
It is tempting to see all this as yet another example of the chaos in Trump’s White House. But there are valid reasons for the president to resist what we know of the proposed strategy. First, the small troop surge will not achieve much. After all, the Obama administration deployed tens of thousands of additional troops in 2009 and failed to eliminate the insurgency. The town of Marjah in Helmand Province, for example, which became a focal point of General Stanley McChrystal’s offensive in 2010, is now back under Taliban control.
At best, extra forces might prevent the Afghan government from losing more territory and collapsing. But that government suffers from multiple weaknesses, which troop injections cannot improve. It is deeply corrupt, ranking near bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index. And it is divided and dysfunctional, struggling to provide basic services and improve Afghanistan’s dire economic situation. Added to that, the country’s security forces, while better than they used to be, still suffer from desertions and low morale.
The obvious parallel here is Vietnam, where the U.S. tried to prop up a hopelessly weak and corrupt local partner so that it might eventually be able to fend for itself. But, as in Afghanistan, years of funding and military support failed to produce an independent government capable of self-defense. The Kabul government is still largely reliant on foreign assistance and, if the U.S. withdrew military and financial support, it would probably crumble as the Saigon administration did in 1975.
To make matters worse, the Taliban has a safe-haven in neighboring Pakistan, and history shows that insurgencies with foreign support usually prevail. The Obama administration tried and failed to pressure the Pakistanis into ending support for the Taliban. And now the Trump administration might step up such efforts with draconian measures such as aid cuts, drone strikes against Taliban positions in Pakistan’s western Balochistan Province, and the removal of Pakistan’s U.S.-designated “major non-NATO ally” status.
But these measures are unlikely to succeed and could create more problems than they solve. Pakistan has long used the Taliban as an instrument of strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter what it sees as Indian influence in Kabul. Despite persistent complaints from the U.S. government, this basic policy has not changed. Last year the Obama administration withheld military assistance to Pakistan due to its support for militant groups, but with no success. Why would renewed attempts at coercion work, when previous efforts failed?
Drone strikes in Balochistan would not necessarily help, either. Strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which peaked in 2010 under Obama, did not weaken the Afghan insurgency. Moreover, killing terrorist leaders does not necessarily disrupt their groups. A case in point: Taliban emir Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone in Balochistan in 2016, but the insurgency expanded afterwards. And, even if the Taliban were expelled from Pakistan, it would still receive support from Iran, and may at some point be granted sanctuary there.
Pressuring Pakistan could also provoke retaliation. For example, the government could block NATO’s supply routes, which transit through the country. This has happened before after border skirmishes in 2011, prompting NATO to open supply routes from the north with Russian assistance. But given the deteriorating nature of U.S.–Russia relations, Moscow’s help would not be available now and NATO forces might find themselves stranded. Islamabad could also restrict vital intelligence-sharing with the U.S. and other NATO countries.
Given the paucity of good options for President Trump in Afghanistan, his administration has considered unusual proposals. Erik Prince (of Blackwater fame) has suggested utilizing private military contractors under the control of a U.S. viceroy. The administration has also debated withdrawing from Afghanistan, which would likely result in the collapse of the Kabul government. The ensuing chaos could also empower the Islamic State, which operates in parts of the country.
Given the paucity of good options for President Trump in Afghanistan, his administration has considered unusual proposals.
So, what should the U.S. do? Is there any way forward? It is clear that the war cannot be won militarily, and that a political settlement is required. Previous attempts to commence talks with the Taliban have fallen through, and any new peace initiative would doubtless be a long and difficult business. But former diplomats such as Laurel Miller, the recently departed special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, believe a negotiated outcome is possible.
Past efforts at negotiation failed partly because Washington did not prioritize diplomacy in its Afghan policy, Miller said in an interview with Politico last month. If Trump fully commits to a peace process, the odds of success will increase. Moreover, countries in the region such as China and Pakistan have shown increasing willingness to engage in talks, and recent years have seen various multilateral initiatives, such as the Kabul peace summit in June. Asian nations have growing trade interests in Afghanistan and want to see stability there.
Admittedly, the Taliban have less incentive to negotiate given their strength on the battlefield. But the group has failed to take lasting control of Afghanistan’s urban centers, and is unlikely to win the war outright. The bloody, stalemated nature of the conflict has led to disaffection in Taliban ranks, according to a 2017 report by the Royal United Services Institute, providing a possible opening for diplomatic engagement. This may not work, but there seems to be no alternative.
Whether Trump will pursue the diplomatic path is another matter, given the State Department’s current weakness. But it is his best shot at ending America’s longest war.