Afghanistan: Why Trump is making longest US war his own

Trump apparently has been persuaded that the US – stuck between winning and failing – has more to lose by leaving the Afghanistan conflict. But a mini-surge of US troops may only serve to reopen the debate over nation-building.

Rahmat Gul/AP
A woman in Kabul, Afghanistan, reads a local newspaper with a photo of President Trump, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. Reversing his past calls for a speedy exit, Mr. Trump recommitted the US to the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan Monday night, declaring US troops must 'fight to win.'

There is no arguing for the notion that the United States is winning the war in Afghanistan, what already years ago became its longest military engagement.

But by simply comparing the 16 years of a US-led war effort there with other military interventions since the 9/11 attacks – in Iraq or Libya, for example – the argument can also be made that the Afghanistan intervention has succeeded where others did not.

Afghanistan has been kept from becoming again a safe haven for Islamist terrorists, and no more attacks targeting the US and the West have been hatched and launched from its soil. Al Qaeda has been weakened, and recent efforts by the so-called Islamic State to secure a foothold in Afghanistan have been rebuffed, both by US troops and by Western-trained Afghan security forces acting under US guidance. At the same time, neither terrorist group has been vanquished in Afghanistan, while the Taliban have been chalking up victories and territorial gains in recent months.

This state of “not winning” – but also not failing in some critical goals – seems to explain why President Trump has decided not to pull the plug on a war that he long judged a lost proposition and a “waste” of American blood and treasure.

By announcing Monday night a “new strategy” that will mean a mini-surge of US troops into Afghanistan to reinforce the nearly 9,000 US troops he inherited there, Mr. Trump is making the longest war his own. It’s a decision that suggests a skeptical president was convinced by his generals and national security advisers that the US has more to lose by leaving Afghanistan than by staying and trying some new approaches to get better results.

It’s also a decision that reopens the question of whether military means alone can win the war, or whether, over time, US efforts will by necessity gravitate toward measures that enhance nation-building.

“Trump has always had two contradictory impulses in his assessment of missions like Afghanistan: He wants to get out of expensive overseas engagements, but he also wants to get tough on terrorists and eradicate their threat,” says Stephen Tankel, an adjunct senior fellow specializing in South Asia security issues at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The fact he seems to have resolved this contradiction by going with the second priority,” he adds, “means he’d rather break the first promise than look weak on the second.”

Trump framed his decision in terms of the war on terrorism, saying he was dissuaded from his “instinct” to simply withdraw from Afghanistan by the prospect of facilitating a resurgence of terrorist groups focused on attacking the US and the West.

“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before Sept. 11,” the president said. He said he would not repeat the error made in Iraq, when the US “hastily and mistakenly” withdrew, paving the way for the Islamic State’s sweep into the country in 2014.

Putting Pakistan on notice

What Trump was announcing was a “new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia,” he said, but the policy he laid out sounded in many ways more like a tweaking of what he inherited.

Instead of focusing on timetables for deployment and withdrawal, he said, the duration of the US commitment will be based on conditions on the ground and cooperation from the Afghan government and others in the region, including primarily Pakistan.

What may prove to be a more substantial shift in policy – one with potentially unforeseen consequences – is the president’s intention to put Pakistan on notice that its harboring of terrorist groups and policies that undermine Afghan stability will no longer be tolerated.

Although Trump did not give any figures, his plan is expected to mean a boost of about 4,000 US troops in Afghanistan, plus perhaps other additional troops from willing NATO countries.

The new US troops are expected to focus on training and advising more of the elite Afghan commando forces that have emerged as the bright spot in an otherwise spotty security forces training program. And Trump hinted that many of the restrictions that had been placed on US forces’ ability to engage in combat would be lifted.

For Trump, what makes his new strategy different is that it is based on what he calls “principled realism” – the US will no longer aim for “nation-building” but for means to preserve and enhance national interests, like preventing terrorist attacks.

Afghanistan's stability

Yet many experts say that while preventing another 9/11 has always been the motivation for the US engagement in Afghanistan, that objective can never be assured by military means alone. To reach that primary objective, they say, political conditions and the population’s basic needs must be made part of the equation.

According to this line of thinking, US national security has been enhanced as Afghanistan has stabilized in the wake of US intervention and as living conditions for Afghans have improved and as confidence in the government has grown, even if only modestly.

“If the objective of being in Afghanistan is that it not be a base for international terrorists and for projecting their activities, then it’s already been pretty successful. But if the objective is that it not be ever again a space where terrorists operate, then you have a different measure of success and the mission has to be broader” to include political and socio-economic factors, says Earl Anthony Wayne, a former deputy ambassador to Afghanistan who is now a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“If you have a government that is viewed as legitimate and somewhat effective by its people,” he adds, “then presumably they are going to agree they shouldn’t have radical terrorist groups setting up shop in their communities and carrying out their violent activities in their country.”

Actual nation-building must be undertaken by the Afghans themselves, Ambassador Wayne says. But he says the US has a sustained role to play in assisting the Afghans to create the conditions allowing that development (which is also in the US interest) to take place.

Trump may have been convinced by his generals to stay the course, but many war-weary Americans are still likely to ask: Does the absence of an Afghanistan-originating attack make the 16-year-old war – one that has cost more than 2,400 US soldiers their lives and cost US taxpayers more than $1 trillion – worth it?

Some experts say no – that it is long past time to not just “not lose” in Afghanistan, as the Obama administration aimed for in the conflcict, but to get out.

War critics say the Afghan government remains hopelessly corrupt, that the US cannot hold the government’s hand in its fight against the Taliban forever – and that in any case the US could reserve the right to go back in with air strikes to obliterate any reconstituting terrorist havens.

'Hub of chaos'

But others say the “throw-in-the-towel” approach would not just open the door to terrorist safe havens but would also risk undoing the progress the US has helped foster and which has contributed to Afghan and regional stability.

“If we were to pull out I think we would face the risk of terrorist groups constructing a hub of chaos in Central and South Asia,” says Ronald Neumann, who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07 and who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

“But I also think there is a lot we have only half built as we have pretty much focused on getting out,” he adds. “If we’re now committed to staying, we have an opportunity to do right what we didn’t do right the first time.”

Ambassador Neumann, who just returned from Kabul, says that despite significant worrisome trends he was heartened by signs of progress – including a dogged anti-corruption campaign in the government of President Ashraf Ghani, military reforms that base officer promotions on merit, and the emergence of a generation of educated Afghans who are demanding cleaner and more effective government.

The “new strategy” Trump announced Monday appears to have elements of a broader approach. But it remains to be seen if his Afghanistan policy will in effect zero in on counterterrorism efforts that some say won’t on their own deliver the “victory” Trump promises.

“We need a comprehensive strategy to have a chance of success,” says Ambassador Wayne. “It’s not just about 4,000 extra troops, we have to realize that we can’t neglect the national politics, we can’t neglect social development, and we can’t neglect Pakistan in the equation.”

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