According to legend, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky famously said that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
So it is with Afghanistan and the Trump administration, which is reportedly considering a recommitment to the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, as well as the deployment of 3,500 more U.S. troops. None of this squares with President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge of an “America First” foreign policy, nor with his healthy skepticism of how America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were managed under Presidents Bush and Obama. No matter. The Afghanistan conflict grinds on, and although Trump may not be interested in the details of this war, the war is interested in Trump.
However, before the U.S. reaffirms its commitment to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, we must confront some fundamental questions about what we are doing fighting (and dying) there and whether these new troop commitments will accomplish anything good. If Trump and his generals cannot resolve these questions, they should not commit more troops to fight in Afghanistan.
When we talk about strategy, we’re really talking about a formula of ends, ways, and means. Good strategies choose ends—or objectives—that are so critical they compel the commitment of national resources (the ways and means). No nation, even one as powerful as the U.S., can do everything, so strategies must prioritize which goals to pursue, based on the national interest and the resources available.
A clear strategy for Afghanistan begins with defining our national interests. The attacks of 9/11 gave rise to the current war, nearly 16 years ago. The prevention of future attacks remains our dominant interest, if not our only compelling one there. Beyond this, the Bush and Obama administrations articulated broader interests such as the development of a functioning government or economy that could ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a failed state and sanctuary for international terrorism. These broader interests led to even broader strategies that poured billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan in an endless, fraught nation-building effort. However, it was never clear how these programs ultimately linked back to our core interest of preventing another 9/11.
Other than that, it’s not clear the U.S. has any other compelling interests in this distant land, and certainly none that would animate an administration that puts “America First.”
Of course, defining national interests is only the first step, and arguably the easiest one. Designing a strategy of ways and means to achieve those ends has proved fiendishly difficult over the past 16 years, even for the best practitioners.
In broad brushstrokes, the U.S. has pursued (at least) three strategies in its Afghanistan war. During the war’s early years, the U.S. treated the mission as a punitive expedition, hunting al-Qaida’s leadership and doing what was necessary to bolster the nascent Afghan government during what was effectively one giant raid. In the war’s second phase, from roughly 2003 to 2014, the U.S. pursued some version of a counterinsurgency strategy (COIN, in military parlance), employing military force but also diplomacy, development, economic aid, and other tools to build Afghan society at the same time as we fought the Taliban and al-Qaida. Troop levels and funding levels varied widely during this time, as the U.S. considered whether it should pursue some other variant of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism—but ultimately the U.S. remained committed to a counterinsurgency strategy that aimed to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, and rebuild Afghanistan.
That changed in 2014, with the U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan, leaving behind a small force devoted to counterterrorism and some minimal advising of Afghan security forces. Since then, the U.S. has pursued a minimalist counterterrorism strategy of direct action against al-Qaida and the Taliban, coupled with advisory assistance to Afghan forces, and an anemic development effort. The results have been poor on nearly all fronts besides counterterrorism, where the U.S. special operations and drones machine has continued to stack bodies like cordwood.
If the Trump administration decides there is a compelling U.S. interest in Afghanistan (which seems very likely, judging by its rhetoric and approval for loosened rules of engagement), the next step will be choosing a strategy to achieve that interest. Here is where the Trump administration must get smart quickly.
A counterinsurgency strategy (of the sort reportedly proposed by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster) offers the greatest possible reward—a lasting Afghan state that can secure itself and prevent the resurgence of al-Qaida or Taliban elements that can threaten the U.S. again. However, this strategy also requires the greatest level of resources and carries the greatest risk, both in terms of failure and cost in American blood and treasure. It assumes the U.S. can actually prevail in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign—a premise undercut by recent American history, as well as the experiences of British, French, and Russian forces over the past three centuries in Afghanistan. If the U.S. could not succeed at counterinsurgency in Afghanistan with more than 100,000 troops, it is unlikely the U.S. can succeed with 12,000 troops.
By contrast, a more minimalist counterterrorism strategy would focus on killing those terrorists who could directly threaten the U.S. or its interest. This has been the de facto policy for the past three years, and it has largely worked through a combination of special operations raids and drone strikes. This strategy exacts a heavy toll on those engaged in it: the small units of SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, and other operators deployed again and again, and their families too. But because of its size and limited scope, counterterrorism raids can arguably be sustained almost indefinitely. However, a counterterrorism strategy carries risk, too: It may not sufficiently aid the Afghan government in securing itself, allowing other threats to emerge, and it may generate significant antibodies among Afghans who resent U.S. special operations on their soil.
Given the administration’s conservative “America First” rhetoric, and its apparent choice to focus resources on fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria over Afghanistan, it seems only natural that the administration would choose a narrow strategy that constrains the Pentagon’s troop commitments and focuses on just those counterterrorism operations necessary to achieve America’s goals in Afghanistan. However, that appears to be exactly the opposite of what the administration is considering. News reports suggest the Pentagon is requesting blanket authority from the White House to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan, without any presidential limits on the number of troops. Further, reports suggest that McMaster has proposed a strategy that continues many of the same counterinsurgency activities of the past 15 years. This dissonance may reflect a split of opinion between Trump and his political aides, and the military leaders he’s picked to run his Pentagon and National Security Council.
This dissonance is the wrong way to plot an effective strategy. We need a clear vision of American interests and a clear allocation of the resources (troops, material, money, and diplomacy) for pursuing those interests. And that will require radical candor from our commander in chief—oddly, a strength of President Trump’s. If he could restrain his penchant for dishonesty and misinformation, he might accidentally articulate the true goals and costs of our continued war in Afghanistan. But without a president who can level with his administration and the American people, the forever war will grind on, consuming lives and dollars for more years to come, with no end in sight and no way to judge whether it has all been worth it.