Although I usually oppose U.S. overseas military interventions, I can understand President Trump’s decision this week to keep significant numbers of American troops in Afghanistan and even expand the presence (to some unannounced extent). What I do find disappointing is Mr. Trump’s apparent neglect of more promising alternatives that couldn’t possibly be called “defeat” or “retreat,” and his failure to describe realistically what may be the biggest fundamental choice the nation still faces in Afghanistan.
I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that Afghanistan under Taliban rule provided the base for the Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11 attack and so many other atrocities (on top of those that they have inspired by supportive groups and individuals). So clearly conditions inside that country (a problematic term, to be sure, as will be explained below) matter for U.S. national security. And it’s hard to imagine that even most Americans who are terribly – and understandably – frustrated with the sixteen-year U.S.-dominated military operation that has followed would disagree. The main question has always been how best to defend American interests.
After the Taliban were overthrown by a (highly successful) U.S.-led military campaign in the fall of 2001, Presidents Bush and Obama tragically opted for a standard American counter-insurgency effort to keep the Taliban out of power that combined continued military pressure on their remaining forces and strongholds with programs to promote Afghan economic, social, and political reform.
As critics (including me) predicted, this strategy of “nation-building” failed mainly because Afghanistan lacked the crucial prerequisites for nation-hood to begin with. So several years ago, as the Taliban began mounting a comeback largely as a result, I began supporting a fundamentally different approach: abandoning reform efforts and focusing on securing the United States’ essential aim in Afghanistan – preventing the Taliban or similar groups from consolidating control in enough territory to reestablish a safe haven capable of generating more terrorism.
This strategy would still involve U.S. military forces. But their top priority by far would not be supporting whatever Afghan government military exists, or training such forces (unless some especially promising units can be identified). Instead, the main American mission would be harassing the Taliban and its allies sufficiently to prevent that territorial consolidation, and the main instruments would be special forces and air strikes. And I argued that such operations could prevent ISIS in Iraq and Syria from posing a similar threat. Finally, I recommended that this approach be supplemented – and eventually superseded – by strengthening the security of America’s borders, to reduce greatly the likelihood that terrorists that still might originate from Afghanistan or anywhere else could actually reach the U.S. homeland.
The main advantages of this approach were, initially, concentrating American efforts on overseas goals that seemed both vital and attainable, as opposed to desirable for non-essential; and recognizing that the U.S. government ultimately is much likelier to succeed in controlling access to the United States than in comprehensively manipulating events in far-off lands.
In his speech this week, President Trump did a good job in describing the urgency of continuing to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. But although he (once again) disparaged nation-building, he also paid it enough lip service to make clear that the basic goal remains in place. For example, he argued that “Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country” and asked India (and possibly America’s European allies) to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” Surprisingly, moreover, he never connected his Afghanistan strategy with his so-far successful efforts to control American borders more effectively. Indeed, Mr. Trump didn’t even mention his proposed suspension of travel from terrorist-wracked countries (a list that, oddly, never included Afghanistan itself).
And the picture drawn by the President of his ultimate objective(s) was confusing, at best. Notably, on the one hand, he insisted that “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” On the other, he stated that the “strategically applied force” his administration will apply in Afghanistan “aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” Still more puzzlingly, he allowed that a political settlement could include “elements of the Taliban.” To be sure, in a technical sense, these objectives aren’t mutually exclusive. But they sure don’t coexist easily, at least not at this point.
One especially worrisome consequence of this Presidential rhetoric is its suggestion, however cautious, that there’s an ultimate, satisfactory solution in Afghanistan that results from continuing U.S. involvement, at least in the foreseeable future. Much skepticism is warranted, mainly because the chances of Afghanistan becoming something politically cohesive enough to “take ownership of their future, to govern their society,” in Mr. Trump’s words, flies in the face of so much of this area’s history.
But that doesn’t mean that the United States should simply pull up stakes, either now, or somewhere down the road – because of that safe haven threat. My own preferred strategy would have resulted in America’s leaders acknowledging that Afghanistan is not a problem to be solved but, as if often true in world affairs, a condition that requires continual management – and then explaining that some forms of management are vastly more realistic, and cheaper, than others.
Nonetheless, an even more appealing alternative has emerged over the last week. In an August 18 article in The Atlantic, MIT political scientist Barry Posen made the case for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan based on the intriguing observation that the countries neighbors, Russia and Iran, both have compelling interests in ensuring that the Taliban and similar groups don’t return to power. In the words of the piece’s title, the aim would be “to make Afghanistan someone else’s problem.”
Of course, I couldn’t help but notice that this proposal strongly resembles my recommendation for handling the challenge of increasingly powerful North Korean nuclear weapons. I’m also impressed, though, by Posen’s observation that both Russia (which is vulnerable to Islamic extremism infecting its own sizable Muslim population) and Iran (a Shia Muslim-dominated country theologically opposed to Sunni groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda) have compelling reasons to frustrate America’s enemies in Afghanistan.
Posen also intriguingly responds to fears that a combined Russian-Iranian success would strengthen those anti-American countries’ efforts to dominate the entire Middle East. As he points out, Pakistan and China both would find this prospect alarming, too, and would seek to check Russian and Iranian influence.
Is Posen’s scheme fool-proof? Of course not. But it looks at least as promising as Mr. Trump’s plan, and it’s discouraging that this supremely, if Machiavellian, America-First strategy apparently wasn’t even considered by the Trump administration in its efforts to fix a badly broken U.S. Afghanistan policy.