Making Afghanistan Great Again

The Trump administration seems in no hurry to devise a strategy for America’s longest-running war.

Achin district of Nangarhar province on April 15, 2017.
U.S. armored vehicles patrol near the site of a U.S. bombing during an operation against ISIS in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on April 15.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Addressing the subject of Afghanistan this week, President Donald Trump said that he’d like “to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.” These are all good questions, though if he really wanted to know, at any point over the past six months he could have called any of the hundreds of officers and intelligence analysts at his disposal—or the many outside experts who, regardless of their politics, couldn’t resist an invitation to brief the commander in chief.

But he’s shown little interest in the state of America’s longest ongoing war, which has rarely broken out of stalemate and has often been slowly deteriorating. Sometime in June, Trump delegated all such matters to Secretary of Defense (and retired four-star Marine general) James Mattis. It is one thing for a president to decide on a policy or strategy, then let the military calculate how best to get the job done. It’s an abdication of duty to shuffle off the whole portfolio of issues—with its questions of life and death, war and peace, stability and chaos—for which a head of state should stand accountable.

A month has gone by, and the nation still has no Afghanistan strategy. This should be no surprise. Disparate factions in the Trump administration claim a stake in national security policy: Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon; Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and his mainly professional National Security Council staff; Steve Bannon’s America Firsters elsewhere in the White House; and whatever slot son-in-law Jared Kushner occupies on an issue. In the absence of a “decider” (as George W. Bush described himself, prompting howls of derision at the time though now the malapropism arouses a pang of nostalgia), decisions aren’t always accepted or enforced.

Even Mattis and McMaster, widely hailed as the grown-ups at the table, are divided on key questions. McMaster wants to add about 4,000 U.S. troops to the 8,400 (plus 5,000 NATO allies) in Afghanistan already. Mattis hasn’t yet advocated a number or an increase of any order.

According to officers and former officials who know both men, McMaster’s view is that, whatever the ultimate decision on strategy, it will probably require more troops, so let’s send more troops now, before the Afghan army’s position weakens further. Mattis isn’t hostile to that notion, and he strongly favors maintaining the U.S. commitment to Afghan security—but he’s not inclined to pour in more troops without first having a better idea of what they’re supposed to do.

The two generals’ differences stem, in part, from their different experiences. Both were among their services’ most skilled and successful officers on the battlefields of Iraq. McMaster, at the time, was a colonel who commanded an Army regiment; Mattis was a two-star general who commanded a Marine division and ended the war as a four-star who commanded all U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. A regiment commander’s motto might be: I will win with whatever you give me, and my job is to win. The chief of a regionwide combatant command might possess this same can-do spunk, but he would also reflect in a memo to the highest authorities: Tell me what the strategy is; I’ll tell you what I can do with what I have and what I need to do more.

At a recent hearing, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin asked Mattis, “What are the likely prospects that sending more troops will make any more difference now than it has in the last 16 years?” Mattis replied, “It’s a fair question.” Though he didn’t elaborate, a fuller answer would be that the prospects are shaky, even with a strategy—and impossible to gauge without one.

What is the aim of our involvement in Afghanistan: to defeat the Taliban (scant chance, given that we couldn’t manage the feat with 100,000 troops during Barack Obama’s first term), negotiate a settlement (with whom, to what end), help reform the Afghan government (we tried doing that for a long time, too, to no end), collaborate with old foes to fight off the growing presence of ISIS (about which much has been said lately), or simply train and supply the Afghan army (which, again, we’ve been doing for a long time, to little avail)? No decision can be made about troop levels without first answering those questions.

After those questions are asked, a more basic question must be answered: How long are we going to keep at this? How many more billions of dollars, or hundreds of lives, is the contest worth? What are the stakes of this fight, compared with the stakes of many other fights and interests in the world? At the beginning, the stakes were indisputable: Our aim was to crush al-Qaida (which was using the country as a base for plotting terrorist attacks, including 9/11), oust the Taliban (which controlled the government and hosted al-Qaida), and help stabilize a new regime so that no terrorist group could use the country as a sanctuary again. But now that terrorists have sanctuaries all over the world, including in Western Europe, how important is pacifying Afghanistan?

And on that last point, do we really know how to pacify Afghanistan? Soon after a joint campaign by the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and Afghan rebels took back Kabul and other Afghan cities, American commanders tried to stabilize the country through classic counterinsurgency methods. This involved, above all, helping the new government provide basic services to the Afghan people, thus earning their allegiance (“winning hearts and minds,” we used to call it) and turning them against the Taliban and other insurgents.

The effort worked in limited areas for a brief time, but it ultimately collapsed for four main reasons. First, the Afghan government, led until 2014 by President Hamid Karzai, was brazenly corrupt and could never win the loyalty of many citizens. Second, U.S. economic assistance overheated the local economy, saturating the place with money, much of which was skimmed off by Karzai’s minions, thus worsening the corruption. (When Gen. David Petraeus was commander, he brought in McMaster, then a one-star general, to head an anti-corruption task force. It produced many warrants and proposals but few arrests or reforms.)

Third, in retrospect, the whole approach was mistakenly conceived. David Kilcullen, a scholar and fighter of counterinsurgency campaigns who was a U.S. military adviser at the time, observed a few years into the fighting that many Afghan people wanted justice more than “basic services” and that—harsh and cruel though they were—the courts in Taliban-controlled areas delivered justice more fairly and less corruptly than many Karzai-clique judges. This was why Kilcullen thought, earlier than many who were on the ground, that the Taliban could win.

Finally, the Western powers’ fatal sin, after disposing of the Taliban, may have been that they established a centralized government modeled on Western capitals—unaware that such an entity could never gain control, much less democratic control, over such a vast, dispersed, largely rural and illiterate mesh of provinces ruled by warlords. Though American strategists in Afghanistan were enamored of T.E. Lawrence (aka “Lawrence of Arabia”) and his writings on insurgency warfare in distant lands, they never really grasped the key lesson of Lawrence’s writing: the importance of knowing and adapting to the local culture and local style of politics.

Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University and former State Department official on Afghan policy who still has many contacts inside the national security realm, tweeted on Thursday: “Leak from the Deep State: The Trump administration will postpone announcing a strategy for Afghanistan until it is in a stronger position.” This seems like an evasion, to say the least; for one thing, what’s the strategy for attaining “a stronger position”? It the tweet weren’t so sad, it would be a funny joke.